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Young Adults Don’t Think World Knowledge Is Vital

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 09, 2006 3 min read
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If you have trouble identifying Iraq on an unlabeled map of the Middle East, or are unaware that the population of China is more than four times that of the United States, you are not alone. Most young adults in the United States have difficulty answering such questions, a new survey finds.

But their lack of geographic literacy goes beyond simple gaps in knowledge and skills: Most don’t believe it is essential to know more about the world.

“National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study” is available from the National Geographic Society.

“Americans are far from alone in the world, but from the perspective of many young Americans, we might as well be,” says the report on the findings, released here last week by the National Geographic Education Foundation. “Most young [American] adults between the ages of 18 and 24 demonstrate a limited understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders, and they place insufficient importance on the basic geographic skills that might enhance their knowledge.”

Even with ongoing news coverage of the war in Iraq, the aftermath of natural disasters in far-flung regions, and the globalization of the marketplace, young adults in the United States appear isolated, uninformed, and indifferent when it comes to the world’s people, places, and cultures, according to the “National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study.”

Too many young adults “appear in some way unprepared for an increasingly global future,” said Annie Weber, a senior vice president for Roper, the New York City-based market-research company that conducted the survey.

Where’s New York?

Six in 10 respondents, for example, could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, most did not know that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim nation, and not quite one-fourth knew that Mandarin Chinese—not English—is the most widely spoken native language in the world.

Less than six months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, a third of those polled could not find Louisiana on a map. About half could not locate New York state.

Geographic Placement

Asked to identify 10 countries and natural landmarks on a world map, Americans 18 to 24 were able to locate 6.5 on average.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to Enlarge: Geographic Placement

SOURCE: National Geographic Education Foundation, Roper Public Affairs

While some 60 percent of respondents viewed use of a computer and the Internet as “absolutely necessary” in today’s world, only a third thought it absolutely necessary to know where other countries are located. And at a time when national business leaders and policymakers are promoting improved foreign-language instruction in the public schools, about half of those surveyed thought that speaking another language is “important but not absolutely necessary.” Another 38 percent of respondents deemed the ability to speak a foreign language “not too important.”

The survey was conducted in person late last year and early this year with a nationally representative sample of 510 adults, 18 to 24. Participants were asked to locate specific countries on a map, to identify important issues in current events, and to describe political and economic concerns in other regions of the world.

They were also asked about their own Internet use, map-reading skills, foreign-language proficiency, and international travel.

‘An Antidote’

Young adults’ knowledge of the world, based on the survey results, was not significantly better, overall, than the previous survey conducted by the National Geographic Education Foundation in 2002.

Although the findings are worrisome, some observers say they do not necessarily reflect the potential for engaging young Americans in international culture and issues.

“Kids are bored in school, and international education can be an antidote to that,” said Michael Levine, who oversees the international education program for the New York City-based Asia Society. He pointed to Americans’ seemingly growing interest in foreign music, fashion, and languages.

“There is certainly a lot globally that interests them,” he said.

To draw attention to the need for geographic literacy, the foundation, which is the educational arm of the National Geographic Society, along with two dozen other education and advocacy organizations, launched a campaign last week to boost Americans’ knowledge of the world.

MyWonderfulWorld.org, an Internet resource with facts and quizzes, curriculum materials, blogs, and advocacy strategies, will accompany print and broadcast ads to raise awareness of international issues and their connection to the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Young Adults Don’t Think World Knowledge Is Vital

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