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Geography's Sad State Explored at Hearing

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Washington--Americans' knowledge of world and U.S. geography is distressingly meager, a parade of witnesses ranging from schoolchildren to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and retired Chief Justice Warren E. Burger told a Senate subcommittee last week.

"If you don't understand geography, you can't understand history," said Mr. Burger, who stepped down from the Supreme Court last year to devote full time to his chairmanship of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

Without a strong background in geography, he added, it would also be difficult to understand current events in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Such an understanding is essential to the proper functioning of a representative government, he said.

Witnesses at the hearing, conducted by the Labor and Human Resources panel on arts, education, and humanities, cited recent studies showing that many high-school and college students could not accomplish tasks such as naming the country on the southern border of the United States or locating the United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union on a map.

Senator Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island and chairman of the panel, said he planned to seek approval of funding to enable the bicentennial commission to finance teacher-training projects in geography and history. The commission will continue its educational and commemorative activities through 1991.

Another panel member, Senator Bill Bradley, Democrat of New Jersey, thanked the officials present for joining a campaign he began more than a year ago to promote geography--an effort that culminated in Congressional approval of a law desel15lignating the week of Nov. 15 as "Geography Awareness Week."

For his part, Mr. Bradley plans to promote such awareness by teaching a geography class in an as-yet-unspecified New Jersey school and attending a "geography bee" to be held in the state.

'Severe Consequences'

In other testimony, Gilbert M. Grosvenor, president and chairman of the National Geographic Society, warned that "ignorance of geography can have severe consequences" in a world where business is increasingly international and competitive. He enumerated his organization's efforts in teacher training and curriculum development.

Secretary Bennett, calling for a return to the "old-fashioned" study of geographic facts, recalled a favorite geography assignment he completed as a child. He said he embellished a map of the United States with "a little cotton ball for Mississippi, a little potato for Idaho, a little piece of wheat for Iowa."

"Don't forget the maple syrup," interjected the panel's ranking Republican, Senator Robert T. Stafford of Vermont, who chaired the hearing.

"The sticky part of the map," Mr. Bennett replied.

The Secretary told the subcommittee that "social studies needs to be reconstructed, returned to what it was--civics, history, geography." During the late 1960's and early 1970's, he said, educators placed too great an emphasis on creativity, and "we convinced ourselves that facts weren't worth anything at all."

Besides imparting facts that are useful in themselves, Mr. Bennett said, the study of geography can improve students' memory skills and dispel stereotypes.

"A lot of people in the North think the entire South is a swamp," he said. "Some people think Vermont is full of nothing but mean farmers who won't give you accurate directions."--jm

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