Are You Dumber Than A 5th Grader? – The Importance of Geography Awareness

Concord Point Light House, Havre de Grace, MarylandSource: consciouseye (Flickr)

This past weekend started off well and ended well.  It was 10 minutes of agony through in the middle of all the bliss that made me come to the conclusion that I am not smarter than a 5th grader.

Although I am from Baltimore, my family home sits on the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland (see if you can guess this one!).  This time of the year there is so lovely.  The beautiful water that I can see a block and a half away from the house, the autumn leaves turning colors everywhere, the quaintness of the town (think Stars Hollow  à la Gilmore Girls), the occasional whistle of the Amtrak training running points north and south.  So soothing.  I was up there for a visit taking in all of the peacefulness when I decided to read the newspaper.  Big mistake.

In the Travel Section of the Baltimore Sun, there was a story on Geography Awareness Week (November 14-20), an initiative by National Geographic that focuses on the importance of geography education in the school and the home.  In the article there were three quizzes to test geographic awareness.  Oh, and the questions in the quizzes were questions generated from the National Geographic Bee  (the contest targets 4th through 8th graders).  I’m thinking to myself  “This will be so easy, I will get most of the answers right.  I mean, I use Google Earth and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) at work.  I got an A in all my geography classes in high school. I had to discuss issues such as the Gulf of Tonkin and the Iran-Contras in poly sci class in college.  My grad thesis focused on Brazil and Venezuela.  People always ask me for directions because they know I will get them to the right destination.” Ha! Real relaxing task, right? Wrong!

The first quiz I decided to do dealt with currency matching. As in matching the currency to the country.    I got all of the answers correct on this portion but here is the kicker:  in reality I only got 70 percent correct.  I used process of elimination for the others based on language/grammar cues and such.  But I’m claiming my 100 percent!

The second quiz was fill-in-the-blank:  Check out a few of the questions that I totally flubbed:

Question 7:  Punta Arenas is an important Chilean port located on what straight? Answer:  Straight of Magellan

Question 15:  Which mountain range in Africa is adjacent to a desert?  Answer:  Atlas Mountains

Question 18:  The countries of Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia are all on what peninsula? Answer: Balkan Peninsula

I only answered 10 of the  20 questions in the quiz correctly.  The third quiz, I only bothered answering three of the ten multiple choice questions listed.  At that point, I was ready to go on my walk on the promenade and zone out (see the picture below).

By the way, my 12-year old niece was present during this moment, observing me sweating bullets over this and cracked up the whole time.  I am a quasi-elder to her at this point, being able to have these answers for her but I don’t know jack!  Well, actually I know a quite a bit but I felt clueless after this exercise (and it was a mental exercise).  My goal for 2011:  Learn more geographical facts and read more foreign news sources.  Become smarter than a 5th Grader!

However, I guess I should not feel too bad.  After returning home and checking out the initiative’s website, I read a few sobering statistics.  According to the 2006 National Geographic-Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy:

  • Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.
  • 6 in 10 young Americans don’t speak a foreign language fluently.
  • 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia.
  • 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim.
  • Half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map.

The study surveyed 18 to 24-year olds. Okay people, this is not good….at all.  Its embarrassing. The previous survey on this subject took place in 2002, so I am assuming that there will be survey data for 2010 next year.  My hope is there is improvement in the statistics. Looking at the survey findings from a public policy angle, American students cannot compete on the world stage if they cannot figure out the location of any given country on the world stage. For that matter, students cannot compete with their peers locally if they cannot pinpoint American states and regions. If you ever have the inclination (and a stiff drink on hand), check out the entire report.  It’s an eye-opener.

If you are still not certain why geography education is important, National Geographic’s My Wonderful World Campaign says it best:

Geography is more than places on a map. It’s global connections. People and cultures. Economics and environments.  Our young people need to know geography in order to understand today’s world—and succeed in tomorrow’s.

Now stepping down from my geography semi-literate soapbox.  For your viewing pleasure, here are a few more beautiful photos of the town’s shore.

Havre De Grace
Source: Madeline Rose (Flickr)

Amtrak Susquehanna River Bridge, Havre de Grace, MD USA
Source: lawsonpix (Flickr)


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