U.S. Falters on Test of Geography
American adults ranked near the bottom in an international test of geographic knowledge, and those 18 to 24 years old performed the poorest of all, a survey released last week by the National Geographic Society has found.
The survey of 10,820 adults from nine nations concluded that many Americans "appear to be lacking in basic geographic knowledge and skills,'' such as the ability to name the NATO countries or to locate England on a map of Europe.
It found, moreover, that the U.S. was the only country tested in which the youngest respondents did not outperform the oldest group, and the young adults scored lower than those in a similar survey conducted in 1947.
These results, said Gilbert M. Grosvenor, president of the society, suggest that the nation's level of geographic knowledge is declining at a time when it is most necessary.
"Our adult population, especially our young adults,'' he said, "do not understand the world at a time in our history when we face a critical economic need to understand foreign consumers, markets, customs, foreign strengths and weaknesses.''
The survey, conducted for the society by the Gallup organization, was based on responses from 1,611 Americans and adults from Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and West Germany.
Respondents were asked to locate 13 selected countries, Central America, the Pacific Ocean, and the Persian Gulf on an unmarked map.
Adults from Sweden--closely followed by those from Germany--performed best, identifying an average of 11.6 of the 16 sites correctly. Americans, with an average of 8.6 correct responses, outscored only those from Italy and Mexico.
American 18-to-24-year-olds had an average of 6.9 correct answers--fewer than the average of any other age group in any country.
Despite the recent media attention to global war zones, three-fourths of Americans could not locate the Persian Gulf, and 45 percent could not spot Central America. Fewer than half were able to identify England, France, South Africa, and Japan, and 14 percent--representing a projected 24 million Americans--could not identify the United States.
A separate 81-question test administered to the Americans found similar gaps in knowledge.
For example, only half knew the country in which the Sandinistas and Contras were fighting; 25 percent could name the countries that acknowledge having nuclear weapons; and only 15 percent could name the world's largest city.
The survey also found that Americans consider map-reading skills more important than the ability to write a business letter or use a computer. But less than two-fifths of Americans consider geographic knowledge "absolutely essential'' in order to be considered a "well-rounded individual.'' --RR