Where is Geography?

More than once, I have asked the following question of the dean of my program at the college where I teach: “What do you suppose it took to receive a doctoral degree in geography?” She usually smiles back at me without answering. Thus, I answer my own question by saying that all I had to do was memorize the names of all capital cities of all countries in the world. In other words, to get my degree, I merely played the “Place Name Game” with the members of my doctoral committee. Many non-geographer decision makers and educational planners including the dean of my current program, Dr. Conant (a Harvard president), and John Fahey (National Geographic Society’s president), follow what I would call a “folk definition” of this field of study.

Most of these individuals have never enjoyed geography. They have never studied it. They have never taken geography courses in their life. If they did, unfortunately, they did not have good geography teachers or good textbooks. Thus, when Dr. Conant in 1948, with a doctoral degree in chemistry, said that geography was not a university subject, he had this “place name game” in mind. He had no idea that place names are only a very small part, not even the whole alphabet, of basic geography.

In a folk approach, geography is identified as a collection of place names, while unfortunately ignoring this ancient and elegant discipline’s real purpose and its modern scientific methodology. As a bridge between social/behavioral and physical sciences, geographers study and analyze the complex relationships between people and their environment. Geography’s research agenda deals with the question of “What is where, and why?” Indeed, part of the answer to “why” is hidden in the answer for “where.” Developing spatial perspectives is a unique quality of geography that is not found in any other scientific discipline. Geography is the science of where as history is the study of when. In the modern academic approach, geography becomes the science of “where.”

Spatial perspective emphasizes the essential issues of a place. It is the ability to understand and distinguish between places. For example, the cost of war in Iraq both in human life and material would have been lower if our national leaders had some view of where they were going, what they would see over there and how to get out. How many American national leaders knew Iraq was really comprised of three different nations artificially put together by the British, including: Mountain-Sunni Kurds in the north, Plain-Sunni Arabs in the center, and Marsh-Shia Arabs in the south?

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), an American satirist, believed that “War was God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” If no major geography lessons have been transmitted to the mental maps of many Americans since September 11, 2001, then Mr. Bierce was incorrect. Not only the corrupt politicians but God, too has failed us: our background on this subject was so bad that even God could not help much. Colorful and smart mental maps begin to be established with good geographical educational training since childhood.

The great majority of reports and writings on geographical illiteracy do not elaborate on finding the reasons for such low achievement in this subject and most of the media simply repeated, but did not analyze, the recent report on geographical illiteracy among young adult Americans, prepared by Roper Public Affairs for the National Geographic Society. The purpose of this article is to delve further into the problem of geographical illiteracy by studying this report critically and finding reasons behind general geographical illiteracy in the United States.


The National Geographic Society’s Report

On May 2, 2006, the National Geographic Society’s report on American geographic illiteracy took over the media. This report, announced by Mr. Fahey, President and CEO of the National Geographic Society, is very disturbing. It is interesting to speculate that with over a million dollars in salary, he probably never took a geography course in his life. Mr. Fahey has an MBA degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Sadly, this university formally dissolved its Geography Department in 1982.

According to this report, “taken together, these results suggest that young people in the United States–the most recent graduates of our educational system–are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Far too many lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events” (May 2006).

This sample indicates that young Americans still do not know much about “place names,” a body of data that is mistakenly equated with the science of geography. However, the numbers are staggering and worth mentioning: 88% of 510 young adults between ages 18-24 were unable to locate Afghanistan, 75% could not find Iran or Israel, and 63% could not point to Iraq and Saudi Arabia on a map.

To most of the geographically illiterate people themselves, the most shocking number was that 33% these young adults could not locate Louisiana on a map. This by itself is not a piece of bad news. This means nearly 66% of the sampled population gave correct answers to the question. This question was indirectly related to New Orleans and hurricane Katrina. So much knowledge would have been revealed by looking at site and situation, two important geographical properties of the city, before and after the storm. The NGS’s answer to one of the questions on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina was that the Mississippi River was the least important factor in this event. Careful analysis of site and situation of New Orleans shows otherwise.

The biggest problem in dealing with a large population is to choose a proper sample size. The NGS was concerned about geographical education of the young adult Americans aged 18-24. According to the most recent estimates in 2005, the total population of this age cohort was 29,307,125. And, the report does not elaborate on their methodology of arriving at a sample size of only 510. Even if this is a statistically correct number, it is still very small and will affect their levels of generalization. The researchers should not allow themselves to talk about a national test of geography aptitude. They need to repeat the word “sample” in every sentence to avoid misleading conclusions. Still, with only 17 individuals out of a 1,000,000 parent population sampled, such a study is highly unlikely to arrive at meaningful general conclusions for this age cohort.

The result of the question on Afghanistan was that nearly 90% of the sample could not find this country on the map, but this finding is misleading. The randomly selected stratified sampling methodology landed on 510 people most of whom had no clue about Afghanistan. This hardly represents this age cohort’s almost 30 million members. In reality, for example, the great majority of my students, freshmen, may not know where or what UAE is, but perhaps surprisingly the great majority of them are able to locate Afghanistan correctly. The sampling technique did not assume that it was possible that some of the individuals gave wrong answers, deliberately. Because of this very disappointing result, it may have happened for this question.

Who are young adult Americans aged 18-24? They are also identified as “Generation Y”, “Generation Why”, and the “Millennial generation.” Sharn Kleiss (2005) referred to them as the “Ultimate Consumers.” Most of the members of this generation have never seen life without the iPod, DVDs, cell phones, Internet, CNN, MTV, and the remote control. In 2004, Mary Merrill conferred another name on them: the “New Global Citizens.” Are they the newest global citizens without being required to learn anything related to global citizenship? Are the members of this generation the authors and the builders of their own lives? Or, are they the product of specific educational planning that has created a generation that is less educated?

The report does not provide information on the sample’s place of residence and income. Cosmopolitan cities such as New York and Los Angles must fare much better than this corner of the world in the USA where I teach geography. Assuming the majority of the 510 young Americans were from the lower middle class, they could have middle class incomes and could have developed more middle class perspectives that are markedly patriotic and nationalistic. Nearly half of the Generation Y members do not live with their parents and thus most were renters. Apparently, they had “rent” more on their mind than learning geography, a class that is not required.

They were selected as recent graduates of the educational system. They can be labeled as wonderers, lost in time and space. They are perhaps the least educated of the American population, in almost every field of schooling, particularly in geography. Using this age group is good for finding a remedy for our educational system. To find out how damaging geographic illiteracy is to the world and the nation, a group of national leaders who are important decision makers should be selected. This list should include the President, Vice President, the Senators, members of the House, the Cabinet members, president and CEO of major corporations, and university presidents.

Many of the survey’s questions simply deal with the basic alphabet of geography. Only a few of these questions were good, some of them were not important, some of them were simply common sense and close to being silly. It would be very interesting to find a young adult American not aware of what to wear at the Equator! Or ignorant of the fact that Mexico City is not near a major body of water. Many of the members of this very small sample have undoubtedly already been to Mexico City.

The National Geographic Society should come up with entertaining and funny control questions. They should ask questions about Freedonia, the Pancreas Islands, the nearest foreign nations to Detroit and Miami. They had a question that reads: “On what continent is the country of Sudan is located? This question must be rewritten. They can ask whether the “Sudan” is: a) name of a car model, b) name of a type of dance, c) name of a nation, or, d) name of a delicacy people eat. The question about time differences between the East and West Coast of the USA was too easy. Instead, they could ask; assuming it is noon in New York, what time is it in Baghdad and Tokyo?

Whose fault is it? Aren’t we in effect blaming the victims of a capitalistic educational system? Geography is hardly a required class in our educational system. Americans can go through every educational level from elementary through graduate school without taking Geography. As a result, they cannot find Israel, Iraq, and Iran on the map. Some adult Americans are unable to locate their own country or the Pacific Ocean on the world map. Geography is shrunken to foreign place names. It is made boring, hard, dry, and useless. Young Americans are ready to become global citizens; just give them a chance by training them to develop what I call analytical spatial perspective.


Reasons for Geographic Illiteracy

The following reasons are not independent of each other. In many respects, these reasons overlap and may be related to low achievements in other fields of education. It is possible that one reason may lead to or be related to the next one. Together, these reasons should explain most of the variables affecting the high rates of geographic illiteracy in the US. These reasons, however, may not be seen as total, finalized and comprehensive enough to cover all aspects of this problem. Future research may identify more related reasons.

The following reasons are based on my thirty five years of experience in geographic education. These reasons cannot be applied to every single person living in the USA. Indeed, the American population is one of the most diversified in the world. America has the best and the worst of almost everything. Here, the most and the least educated people live not far from each other. A small proportion of the American population may be called true global citizens. They learn and care about events and places beyond our borders. Unfortunately, more Americans are not interested in these subjects. Without blaming them, the following reasons are applied to most but not all Americans.

The reasons for geographical illiteracy include:

1. Cultural Hegemony,

2. Political Hegemony and Imperialism, and

3. Politics of Educational Planning.

Cultural Hegemony

This reason includes such cultural factors as language, religion, food, music, film, and much more. American popular culture is penetrating and dominating every corner of our planet. Who can think about competing against Hollywood movies or American fast food restaurants? Our language, English, the thinking goes, is the best, and our religion is full of love. Why should we then learn another language or familiarize ourselves with another religion? During the Dark Ages, Christianity prevented Greek/Roman rational thinking in Europe. In the Holy Book, the sun still moves over the Holy Land and only Joshua can stop it. The great majority of Zionist Christians believe that Israel is the Promised Land.

In most southern parts of the US, particularly in the Bible Belt, one of the most commonly seen bumper decorations is a metallic fish, representing Jesus; there is almost always also a patriotic bumper sticker, such as “God Bless America,” “Support Our Troops,” “Pray for Our Troops,” and the like. They are a part of the war propaganda supported by the Pentagon. Here you never see a bumper sticker saying “Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home Alive.” Here, myth and reality are seen as one. Here, Charlie Brown and Charlie Darwin are included in the same sentence, and Santa Claus and Jesus are mixed. Here, barely-educated individuals use science and technology to prove “creation” and reject “evolution.” Of course, Ayatollah Pat Robertson is one of a few self-declared spokesmen for God. In addition, he gives Fatwa to assassinate other national leaders.

Thus, it is not surprising to hear oversimplified wrong answers to unasked questions. Regardless of the type of question, most often, stereotyped replies are given. The result of all this nonsense is producing closed-minded and geographically challenged people. These ethnocentric feelings make people more closed-minded with their own stereotyped perspectives of the world. If we do not like them, especially inferior people who live in the less developed places, there is no reason why we should learn anything about them.


Political Hegemony and Imperialism

American history is filled with conflict and violence. We have gone to war for independence in 1775, for honor and trade in 1812, for territory in 1846, for humanity and empire in 1898, neutrality rights in 1917, for national security in 1941, and for the global war on terrorism now. America entered into the arena of world affairs after what John Hay called the “Splendid Little War,” the Spanish-American War of 1898. After defeating Spain and colonizing the Philippine Islands, the US opened a gateway into Latin America and Asia, and the rest of the world became a field of dreams for American political economy control. We inherited Imperialism and the Empire from the British. Today, the US is a Floating Empire that no other county can deal with and is able to control the whole world.

Venturing into imperialism, “President William McKinley, as commander in chief, ordered a US fleet of six warships into Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War in 1898…But, confessed later that he had had no idea where the Philippines were” (Demko, Agel, and Boe, 1992, p. 15). Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, knew how to find his way on the map of the world. He was one of the first to carefully read Alfred T. Mahan’s book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History. Mahan argued that naval power was the key to success in international politics. Many of Mahan’s principles of “Sea Power” were essentially geographical and affected both the type and utilization of the naval forces. Roosevelt built the foundations of a new America that became a Floating Empire.

By this time, “industrial America was awash in textiles, steel, manufactured goods and needed to expand its markets across the Pacific to Asia” (Schroder, 2005, p.10). American imperialism then got into the business of even overthrowing legitimate and democratic governments all over the world. For example, American dollars in cash enticed thugs and prostitutes in southern Tehran, and American-made bullets killed Dr. Mosaddeq’s supporters and brought back an American Shah to Iran, in 1953. Dr. Mosaddeq, called the “Icon of Democracy” by Professor Akbari, was one of the most educated politicians that the world has ever seen. He once said that “democracy in a country that is occupied is meaningless.” This is so applicable to Iraq today.

For over a quarter of a century, Iran became in effect a semi-colony of America. Actually, in 1979, the US did not do anything important to save Iran from the world’s first terrorist Taliban. In 2006, we still do not have a firm foreign policy towards the regime of the Mullahs in Tehran with their aims to gain the tools for nuclear warfare. But, we want to bargain with and bribe a brutal and bloody regime that has taken 70 million Iranian people hostage. We prescribe democracy for Iraq but not for Iran. Maybe, our neocon leaders want to nuke Iran and Syria first and then drop democracy on the head of their people with shock-and-awe bombs. Many Americans have a purely feel-good attitude about their own nation. Some are simply rednecks and have developed prejudice and xenophobia towards foreigners. As citizens of the only superpower, some Americans look down on all people living outside the First World sorted by color: Black in Africa, Brown people of Southeast Asia, Yellow people of China and East Asia, Camel Jockey Muslims, Red Native Americans and so on. This jingoism and chauvinistic imperial ambitions are perpetuated by shallow patriotism and nationalism. Many of our national political leaders, thinking of themselves as “Masters of the Universe,” are not shy to show that they intend to rule the world by force. Thus, the thinking goes, there is nothing worth learning about the people and places that we are about to control or even destroy.
Politics of Educational Planning

Simply, our educational system budgeted and dictated by educational planners who are highly influenced by politicians, has failed to train American students as global citizens. Politicians and planners with specific political agenda in mind are able to emphasize what American children should and should not learn in school. Of course, the spatial dimensions of political problems will not be included in the curriculum if the politicians and educational planners have already developed a sense of hatred towards geography, particularly misunderstanding the benefit of studying this field of scientific discipline.

The worst case scenario is developed when corrupt politicians and planners know the value of geography but kill it for some political reasons. While keeping American citizens geographically uninformed, it would be easier for the national leaders to lie about the rest of the world. Dr. Conant, the Harvard president after World War II, known as the main architect of the Cold War and high school consolidation, had little respect for geography. This is a field of study that was called “Queenly Science” by James A. Michener in 1970. He meant that geography was ancient and elegant. Yet, Dr. Conant had no idea what geography was all about, and he never worked a full day in a high school in a poor neighborhood. He killed geography in Harvard in 1948, a dark day for this field of scientific study (Smith, 1987, p. 155). The result was that Harvard trained infamous personalities such as Robert McNamara, Francis Fukuyama, George W. Bush and many others with no sense of spatial perspectives.

As the alma mater for many of our national leaders, including our president, Harvard is a very important trend-setter for the nation. It is believed that “where Harvard leads, others follow.” Our political leaders knew killing Geography there would likely cause it to be destroyed elsewhere. For example, a few ivy-tower-elite universities, including University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Stanford, and Yale, followed Harvard and eliminated their geography programs.

In the Cold War era, filled with propaganda and lies, geography had to be removed from the curriculum to make the audiences ready for lies and deceptions. Politicians deliberately did not want to allow Americans to learn about the former USSR, Israel, Iraq, or Iran. Thus, by the end of World War II and the initiation of McCarthyism, geographic education in most schools across America was generally ignored and often hidden away, buried under buzz words such as Social Studies, Humanities of this and that, International Relations, Regional Studies, and some other funny names. It seemed that the word “Geography” had totally disappeared from vocabularies and curricula.

Nowadays, the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, aligned with some corrupt politicians, does not allow Americans to learn about the true nature of Palestinians living under occupation. Many of these geographically challenged Americans are teachers, business and political leaders. These global leaders will be surprised and confused without understanding the geographical dimensions of the problems in the 21st century including the global war on terror, the occupation of Iraq, tsunami and earthquakes, and pandemic diseases such as AIDS and the avian flu.

If a large proportion of Americans do not know much about the world, we cannot compare our nation with other places, and thus our national leaders have such an easy time of lying about. It is absolutely wrong, for example, with unique geographies to compare the US to the former USSR or Russia. Or, combine Iran, Iraq, and South Korea in one category and call it the “Axis of Evil.” But, this has been done frequently because many Americans have little information about the rest of the world. A combination of the above reasons explains the foundations of geographical illiteracy in this country. There can hardly be any progress in a right direction without removing these impediments. Becoming less prejudiced and having fewer chauvinists will help. But, the main focus should be on deliberate and serious planning to teach Americans to become global citizens.


Victims of a capitalistic educational system that is controlled by the elite politicians and planners are being blamed for not knowing how to play a “place name game.” A game does not even represent the entire alphabet of geography. According to the National Geographic Society report, the numbers of geographically challenged young adult Americans are on the rise. This means that our educational system, families, media, grass root organizations, universities, and our geographical associations in this country are not doing something right.

Reducing the effect of the three associated problems should help in training global citizens, young or old, in the USA. More importantly, educational planners should go back to the basics of training educated Americans. Memorizing geographical facts and place names must start in elementary schools. High school students should then be taken to the next step and be exposed to basic spatial concepts. In colleges and universities, geography courses must become required. To develop some basic spatial perspectives, nobody should be allowed to graduate without taking at least 20 credit hours of geography. Furthermore, no university should be accredited without a “Geography Department” to offer undergraduate courses. Actually, it would be fun to add some general geography questions to driver’s license tests in all of the states.

Dr. IRA KAY has a doctoral degree in geography he can be reached at: drdrkay@yahoo.com.


Akbari, H. “Icon of Democracy: 51st Anniversary of Mosaddeq’s Election as Prime Minister.

Demko, G., Agel, J., and Boe, E. Why in the World: Adventures in Geography. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.

Kleiss, S. “Generation Y: The Ultimate Consumers.” Nov. 2005.

Merrill, M. “Generation Y: The New Global Citizens.

Michener, J. “The Mature Social Studies Teacher.” Social Education, Vol. 34, No. 7, Nov. 1970, pp. 760-767.

Roper Public Affairs. Final Report: National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study. Washington, D. C. Prepared for the National Geographic Education Foundation, National Geographic Society, May 2006.

Schroder, W. “American Imperialism and the Politics of Fear: Before Iraq, There was the Philippines.” Cmmondreams.org, February 15, 2005.

Smith, N. “‘Academic War over the Field of Geography’: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947-1951.” Annals of American Association of American Geographers, Vol. 77, No. 2, 1987, pp. 155-172.