Corrected: This article misidentifies the U.S. Department of Education program that supports the development of foreign-language and geographic-regional study. It is Title VI of the Higher Education Act.
Though it has topped the news for much of the past year, Afghanistan has not secured a place on most young American’s mental maps. Half drew a complete blank on its location, and only 17 percent could pick it out correctly on an unlabeled map, according to a study released last week.
And that’s just the start of what the nation’s 18- to 24-year-olds don’t know about geography, as uncovered by a National Geographic Society survey that found little improvement in geographic literacy since 1988.
Young Americans fared worse than their peers in seven of the eight other countries surveyed earlier this year, though no national group earned an excellent mark. Young people in the other English-speaking countries in the study—Canada and Great Britain—scored almost as poorly as Americans on a test of geography and current events.
Sweden, Germany, and Italy came out on top; Mexico on the bottom. But in no country could even half the young people surveyed locate Israel on a map.
In presenting the results of the survey, John Fahey, the president of the Washington-based National Geographic Society, sounded an alarm, saying that they represented “an apparent retreat by young people from the global society in an era that does not permit such luxury.”
Billions of Americans
The survey, conducted this past summer by RoperASW, polled more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, and the United States.
Among the results:
- One in three young Americans gave the U.S. population, which stands at about 289 million, as 1 billion to 2 billion—or roughly a third of the world’s population. With the exception of Sweden, fewer than half of the young people in the survey correctly named China and India as the two countries with a population of that size.
- Just more than half the Americans could find the state of New York on a map of the United States.
- A majority of young Americans knew that the Taliban and al-Qaida had been based in Afghanistan, but they were the least likely of all those surveyed to answer the question correctly.
- A majority of young Americans believe that Americans, in general, know at least as much about geography as people in other countries.
Near the Bottom
The new survey resulted in about the same international ranking for Americans as a 1988 survey also sponsored by the National Geographic Society.
In the earlier test, American adults landed near the bottom of those tested in eight countries, and Americans 18 to 24 years old performed the poorest of all.
On the bright side, the report notes that navigational skills have improved among young Americans since 1988, and that young people seemed fairly conversant with issues that have a large impact on life in the United States, such as immigration and the AIDS crisis.
The report also found that 55 percent of young Americans said they had taken a geography course in school, up sharply from 30 percent in 1988. Those who reported taking a geography course tended to perform better on the test.
Other factors associated with greater knowledge included the use of multiple news sources, international travel and language skills, and level of education.
In response to the survey, the geographic society has formed a coalition of organizations that includes the two national teachers’ unions, America Online, Nickelodeon, Sesame Workshop, AFS Intercultural Programs, and others. A panel of leaders from those organizations will meet to develop programs that can be used by parents, educators, the media, policymakers, and business people to combat geographic illiteracy and apathy.
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Afghanistan? Young Americans Can’t Find It on Map, Survey Finds