"Cuba's Next to China, Right?"

IMAGINE not being able to answer any of the questions in the Blue category--Geography--of Trivial Pursuit. Imagine being asked to find the Pacific Ocean on a map and pointing to the English Channel instead. Imagine confusing the Soviet Union's location with Botswana.

It may seem unlikely, but according to a recent National Geographic Society survey of nine countries, Americans ranked at the very bottom in their knowledge of geography. When asked to identify 16 spots on the map, including the United States, the Soviet Union, the Pacific Ocean and the Persian Gulf, American adults averaged 8.6 correct answers. Swedes ranked the highest, with 11.6 points.

Geography, much to the bane of schoolchildren and delight of their teachers, has always been considered one of the staples of elementary school education. By learning about the different countries in the world, it was rationalized, children would better understand America's own diversity of heritages.

Unfortunately, that pedagogical approach was thrown out with mandatory school prayer and other relics of the conservative, unmissed past. And the results of changes in educational direction are glaringly obvious from the poll's findings: American adults may have scored poorly on the survey, but Americans in the 18 to 24-year-old category did even worse, placing last out of nine countries, including Mexico, Canada, Great Britain and Japan.

As Gilbert M. Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, said, "Our adult population, especially our young adults, do not understand the world at a time in our history when we face a critical economic need to understand foreign consumers, markets, customs, foreign strengths and weaknesses."


Knowledge of geography is the building block upon which students can begin to understand America's position within a larger framework of countries. It is essential for economic reasons and for political ones.

But young Americans aren't being taught to understand the world around them; they are growing up secure in the supremacy that ignorance breeds. It's easy to accept unquestioningly the xenophobia of "we're number one" if you can't even locate the competition on a map. Mom, baseball and apple pie thrive on a single-minded vision of the United States, one which hardly acknowledges the vast majority of the world's population.

Much has been written about the narrow concepts of the so-called American Dream, about the pressing need to reform America's educational system, about the ignorance of its schoolchildren. And as the National Geographic survey underscores, most of it is true.

American schools teach fewer foreign languages than those in other countries, they teach less non-American history, they teach less science and math. And these failings in the educational system have important consequences for America's political and economic relations with other countries.

Geographical ignorance is often accompanied by political naivete, as demonstrated by a series of more in-depth questions which the pollsters asked over 1600 Americans. The survey found that not more than half of adult Americans know that the Sandinistas and contras are fighting each other in Nicaragua; most placed the conflict in Iran, Lebanon or Afganistan. In addition, 50 percent of Americans could not name a single member of the Warsaw Pact; 10 percent erroneously placed the United States as a member of the Soviet bloc.

If Americans cannot even make basic distinctions about the world's political makeup, then they are even less likely to have any understanding of the complex foreign policy issues which affect them.

In Congress, senators and representatives debate the fine points of giving aid to the contras (the ones fighting in Nicaragua, that is). Meanwhile, their constituents are hard-pressed even to identify the strife-torn Latin American country on a map, never mind explain what the U.S. government's policy is toward the contras.

It is this kind of ignorance that furthers the division between society's governing elite and the citizens it seeks to serve. When the American education system produces geographical--and political and scientific--illiterates, elected officials become much less accountable to their constituents and much more liable to take reckless foreign policy stances. While President Reagan and his administration were trading arms for hostages in Iran, most Americans were unable to locate Iran on a map.

Things may change after the presidential election in November, and it is clear that they have to if the U.S. is not to continue handicapping the students it is supposed to educate. Both candidates, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Vice President George Bush, have spoken out on the education issue and on the need to improve the quality of teaching that goes on in the public schools.

Yet there is no need to return to a 1950s-style classroom in order to improve Americans' familiarity with the world outside their borders. Moral values, a la Alan Bloom and former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, are not the prescription to the country's educational woes.

If anything, the National Geographic survey results highlight the danger of looking back at the expense of anticipating the future. As populations continue to soar in the Third World, the U.S. will represent a smaller and smaller proportion of the world's population. And economically, the Far East has already achieved unparalleled influence that will only continue to grow.

To continue to educate Americans as though "Made in America" labels were the only ones in the products they buy, as though English was the primary language of the billion-plus people in the world, would be a huge disservice to the national interest.

But it will take much more than an "Education President" to revitalize a system of education that produces 18-year-old high school graduates who don't know where to find the U.S.--or the Soviet Union, Japan, Canada, France, Mexico and South Africa--on a map.