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Feb. 20, 2003, Gazette

Poles apart

Katie Norman
The “Global Village” is everyone’s new favourite catchphrase. Every social science course talks about its importance to economics, political science and sociology. There is an increasing level of interconnectedness that is bringing the world’s population together at a remarkable speed. Advances in communication and transportation are opening territorial boundaries, putting us at risk to transsoverign problems, which is proving to be problematic for the administrations of some of the world’s most powerful countries. There is cultural leveling, with Feng Shui being found in the most contemporary homes across Canada. Our world is getting technologically smaller, but is this increasing the amount of accurate knowledge that we have about other countries?

It’s not news that the majority of people are ignorant about geography. Stats Canada has done work on this; Jay Leno shows his own people’s ignorance through his segment Jay-Walking; and who can forget Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans. It’s not even complicated issues such as the capital of Kazakhstan or the location of the Tanggula Mountains that are being studied, rather they are being tested on such matters as the location of Russia and the United States.

Maybe I am over-exaggerating, after all it’s only 11 per cent of Americans who can’t find their own country on a map (this according to National Geographic–Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey). Wait now, 11 per cent of people don’t know where they live? However, Canada did not fare well either in the survey, with less than half of 18-24 years olds being surveyed passing the test.

I am being critical, though, and it is likely that some of the answers are skewed due to surveying problems, but there are still a lot of people who could help to be educated a little more from the atlas.

Geography literacy is important. In high school students choose, in most cases, geography or history to fulfill their social studies requirement. Geography is the easier option or so you are told, while history is the realm of the academic elite. This distinction needs to be abolished as both go hand in hand. You cannot understand what happened if you don’t know the location. The Warsaw Pact and NATO make little sense if you have no clue where Poland and the United Kingdom are. I have actually met people who think Hawaii is in the Caribbean.

In a country where students are taught about countries that no longer exist — yes Zaire is no longer a country for all those students learning about it in Grade Four — it is no surprise that people cannot pick out Afghanistan or Iraq on a map. In a time where we are experiencing a war on terrorism and an impending war or Iraq you think the ignorant among us would pull out a map and check the location of their targets.

Without a basic understanding of geography it must make reading newspaper headlines or watching the evening news very difficult. Perhaps the real crux of the problem is that people have existed for so long without these basic skills that they aren’t even aware that they are missing them.

People know all about the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, yet this historical information isn’t backed by the most basic of geography. Perhaps this is due to the dedication of Hollywood film directors to provide us with epic historical movies, think Schindler’s List. Yet how many people know Auschwitz is in Poland and not Germany?

There needs to be a greater social conscience for such things. People need to stop thinking that El Nino is a little Mexican boy and Kashmir is a nice, expensive sweater. Pick up an atlas, skim through it, if you don’t understand a headline look up the country it is talking about. I too have geographic faults; we are all prone to them occasionally. The education system needs to place more emphasis on geography. History teachers should always be equipped with a map; it should never be assumed that people know where in the world they are learning about. It is such assumptions that help to perpetuate the ignorance.

Marshall McLuhan was correct about the Global Village, now we need to step up to the plate and educate ourselves on our new community.

Oh and by the way the capital of Kazakhstan is Astana and the Tanggula Mountains are in China. My Geo-Safari has served me well.