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On (not) knowing geography

Disclaimer: this is not sour grapes. I'm actually rather good at geography.

There's been a couple of links going around recently, wherein some unknown people asked some unknown Brits/Americans to name the (states of the US)/(countries of Europe) for an unspecified period of time and then now they show us (some of?) the results chosen via an unspecified selection process to laugh at.

As you might infer from all that, the methodology is rather lacking. I also think the whole thing is rather mean-spirited. (a) Lots of those laughing probably couldn't do much better and (b) let's face it, you *don't* need to know this stuff.

States of the US? Americans like to think they're important, but really, they're just internal subdivisions of the US. They're unimportant even if you're visiting them, compared to the actual cities or parks you're seeing. Only if you're doing business or committing crimes and thus encountering state law does it really matter. I suppose you might notice that "sales tax" keeps jumping around from place to place, and states make sense of that. Otherwise? Pfft. I might expect someone to have heard of California, Texas, New York and Florida on grounds of size and likelihood to visit, but that's about it. I'd like to think Chicago is a world city people should know of -- though honestly, with Third World megacities, even that's fading, and Chicago's not even #2 in the US any more -- but knowing that it's in Illinois? Hell, Chicagoans don't care about that much.

Countries of Europe are a bit more important since they're actual countries, but do you really need to know exactly where Estonia is? I don't think so. If you know that E&L&L are Baltic countries and that they're over *there* then I think you're ahead of the game; hell, knowing that there is a category of "Baltic countries" is deeper knowledge than whether Latvia is north of Lithuania. (It is. Mnemonic: the three go in alphabetical order, north to south.)

Given where lots of goods and immigrants come from, arguably an American should know the states of Mexico or provinces of China before being able to sort out the Balkan remnants, Baltics, or Czech and Slovakia, especially as several Chinese provinces would have more people than all those countries combined. "Where are you from? Oh, Yunnan, that's a province in the southwest, right? Cool."

That's another thing. The "tests" were recall ones, where you have to write out names on a blank map; that's the hardest test, and not that relevant to the average person. Recognition is both easier more and more relevant: you never have to go name a blank map in real life, but you do see names in the news or hear them from other people and it'd be helpful to know where they go. Partial credit for putting smaller countries in the right general area -- like getting Albania and Algeria on the right continents -- is perfectly reasonable, too. Heck, even if you read world news assiduously, you'd end up recognizing country names, but not being able to place them on a map closer than the right continent.

And like I said at the beginning, I can say this from a position of strength. I *can* recall names for a majority of the world's countries, especially the bigger ones; I can match-to-sample most of the rest, and probably region-bin almost all of what's left. More, I can name not only the US states but the equivalents for Canada, the UK, and Australia, and I can match names for China and much of India. And it is nice to see "Yunnan" and go "aha! I know where that is, now". But I don't think it's that important.

More important is some physical geography, like knowing that South America is mostly east of North America, which gives you the right intuition about time zones and flight paths.

And, you know, people tend to keep the information they use, and to forget what they don't, unless they make an effort. I passed the AP Latin tests, yet now I know almost no Latin, because I stopped using it. Most people have little reason to ever learn the states of the US or the new states from Yugoslavia in the first place. I know the stuff I do because I have worked at it. Academic Decathlon made me learn all the countries and capitals in 1992 (I've forgotten the capitals); more recently I've used http://www.lizardpoint.com/geography/index.php and set out to learn Africa, India, and China, first in bursts of studying and re-testing until I could pass decently, and then testing again every few months to keep it up. --which isn't enough, I didn't do that well on the last India one.

Point is, I decided these were things I wanted to know, as a citizen of the world, even if I didn't have an immediate use for them, and I worked to learn them. But it does take some work, unless you have an even better memory than I do, or a deeper rote foundation laid down.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/381469.html#comments



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 1st, 2013 04:03 pm (UTC)
In general I agree with your basic point and many of your specific points. Especially about cities. I've been to China many times, to many different places. The only place I think of by provice rather than by city, is Yunan. The rest I identify by city then have to think about province.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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