Friday, April 18, 2008

Geography and Politics

Over one-third of young Americans (ages 18-24) can't find Iraq on a map, despite so many Americans -- and others -- dying there. Nine out of ten can't find Afghanistan. One in five put Sudan in the wrong continent. Okay, Sudan is kinda obscure, but half can't locate New York on a map. New York?

The study by National Geographic is disheartening, to be sure, and you can test your own knowledge with 20 questions (I got 18 right).

Why does this matter?

How can you understand the news if you do not have basic knowledge? Otherwise, stories zoom right over your head. Some scholars call this political expertise, or sophistication, or prior knowledge. Even watching Colbert or Stewart requires an understanding of politics, geography, civics, and current events ... otherwise you're gonna miss a lot of the jokes.

It makes sense that National Geographic would sponsor a survey like this, and then supporters will call for more attention to geography in schools, more money, more this and more that. Fill in the blank. Scientific knowledge among the same age group sucks. So does civics knowledge. Or writing ability. Each group has supporters who will then point at schools and government and shout: "Fix it!"

And why the hell not?

It's all the marketplace of ideas. Point out a problem, note how it can affect important consquences (like voting, like participation, like understanding what the heck is happening). I sympathize. Really. But at some point these competing surveys that demonstrate a lack of knowledge in a given field end up cancelling each other out. I'm not sure any of them get all that much attention beyond a story or two, maybe a grumble in a column or blog.

A lot of young poeple say one reason they don't follow the news is they don't understand it. Basic civics gets underplayed in the No Child Left Untested world. Without basic knowledge, it's hard to imagine young people improving what they know. That leaves them open to other, more emotional appeals -- how a candidate makes them feel.

Before I end this, a final word from PhDweeb methodological land: knowledge is often a dependent variable, something we try to explain, as in does exposure to the news media or The Daily Show increase knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is an indepdent variable, as in those with prior knowledge glean useful info from the news, while those with less info do not. Knowledge, then, is also a useful independent variable.

Indeed, sometimes it can be both.


Marie said...

The lack of geographic knowledge among young adults is appalling. In response to the survey National Geographic created the My Wonderful World Campaign to try and bring awareness to this problem. I recently graduated from college with a degree in geography and am now interning at National Geographic and work specifically on the campaign. Our website is to find out more. Additionally we have a blog that I write for
Please check it out.

Hollander said...

The My Wonderful World is a terrific site. I especially like that there are sections for parents, children, and educators.

I should have noted I'm a map geek. I love looking at them. I also love Google Earth and just wandering the globe, virtually.

Nice blog, too, that sums up the site and adds fresh material.