Geographically Self-Centered America

National Geographic released a survey of 18-24 year-old Americans, testing their geographic knowledge. The results, as usual, depress me. The summary of results from the website says:

  • Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.
  • 6 in 10 young Americans don’t speak a foreign language fluently.
  • 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It’s the largest country in Africa.)
  • 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It’s Hindu—by a landslide.)
  • Half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map

The website allows you to take the survey questions (or at least a sample of them; it’s not clear) to see how you do compared to a bunch of people aged 18-24 years. I started answering the questions and had a “huh?” moment. To explain, first let me quote from the official report.

This survey was designed to test the geographic skills and knowledge of young adults. Three kinds of questions are used to gauge geographic know-how. First, there is a series of questions on factual knowledge of important events and issues in the news.

I question (from my admittedly non-geography expertise) whether or not “current events” qualify as geography. Here are some samples of the questions that I do not think fit into a geographic-knowledge survey.

    “Which of these cities is the setting for the original television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation?” (Las Vegas. I thought it was San Francisco, but I’ve never watched the show.)
    “In 2004, what percentage of population growth in the U.S. was due to immigration?” (33%, I thought 20%.)
    “In which of these countries did a catastrophic earthquake occur in October 2005, killing over 70,000 people?” (Pakistan)

Do these really qualify as geography? Especially the CSI question. Bleah.

How about this one:

Which of the following was not a significant contributing factor in Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the city of New Orleans?


  • Much of the city was located below sea level
  • The Mississippi River was at record high flow levels
  • Flood protection walls failed
  • Protective coastal marshes had disappeared

Again, current events knowledge is required to know that the Mississippi wasn’t in Flood at the time of the storm. Now, given that most people should be able to eliminate answer one and three immediately, I’m still not convinced that to have “geographic knowledge” you’re required to know about the flood stages of the Mississippi.

Other examples from the Web survey which illustrate some non-geographic knowledge requirements for correct answers:

    “Which language is spoken by the most people in the world as their primary language?” (Mandarin Chinese)

74% said English. 18% said Mandarin. Crazy Americo-centric people!

    “The most heavily fortified border in the world exists between which two countries?” (North & South Korea)

30% said the border between the US and Mexico was the most heavily defended. This one I find less excusable. Have all these people ignored the whole illegal immigrant issue? How is it possible to think that the US/Mexico border is well-fortified? I blame this one more on illogical thinking and American chauvinism than a lack of geographic skill.

    “Which of these countries is the world’s largest exporter of goods and services measured in dollar value?” (US)

Lots of people put in China, which I guess is forgivable given the harping on the trade deficit. This actually makes me wonder, what other countries do we have a huge trade surplus with to make up for the deficit with China?

    “World health officials are very concerned about a particular strain of avian flu. Which continent did that strain of flu come from originally?” (Asia)
    “Which of the following countries is the world’s largest consumer of oil?” (US)

I’m bitching about some of the questions quoted herein, but the survey also tested map-reading skills and other important knowledge. I recommend skimming the report. It makes for interesting reading. For example, some people, if told to evacuate to the northwest in an emergency situation, would go the opposite direction. Oops.*

So, am I being a parochial engineer and defining “geography” too narrowly, or do my concerns have merit? I don’t know.

*As an aside, people should become more familiar with the differences between Global Navigation (north, south, east, west) tendencies and Landmark Navigation (go to the drugstore and take a left). These tend to break down across gender lines with Feminine users preferring Landmark and Masculine users preferring Global. In this particular case, for full coverage of all preferences, evacuation authorites should say, “Evacute to the Northwest, toward Hapsburghvillekilltown.” For more information, I highly recommend a brilliant and engaging professor at Georgia State University for this topic: Dr. Jennifer L. Bowie.

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