Geographical Education

American Geographical Illiteracy and (Perhaps) the World’s Worst Atlas

Ukraine's Location MapGeoCurrents has long been concerned with geographical illiteracy. The depth of ignorance continues to be revealed, most recently in a Washington Post piece that indicates that only 16 percent of Americans can locate Ukraine on a world map. Most distressingly, a significant number of respondents placed Ukraine in central Greenland. Other reports indicate that geographical ignorance is widespread even at the highest levels of political leadership in the United States. Both president Barack Obama and former president George W. Bush have made a number of particularly egregious blunders. Intriguingly, the Washington Post article referred to above indicates that Democrats and Republicans are equally clueless about Ukraine, with only 14 and 15 percent of respondents respectively able to locate the country. Political independents, however, performed much better, with a 29 percent success rate.

Geographical illiteracy is by no means limited to the United States. It rather seems to be a common problem the world over, although it is more pronounced in some places than in others. A 2002 National Geographic Survey, for example, found higher levels of global knowledge in Sweden, Germany, and Italy than in the United States. These results are showcased in Ken Jennings’ charming book Maphead. Jennings devotes an entire chapter to charges of geographical illiteracy, a scandalous lapse of knowledge that has a long history. Here he recounts the shocking story of David Helgren, a former assistant professor at the University of Miami who lost his job in the early 1980 and was threatened with a lawsuit merely for revealing the depth of ignorance of his students, thereby embarrassing his university. An even more embarrassing story outlined in Jennings’ book concerns the time when the U.S. State Department had had confused Mauritius with Mauretania when briefing president Richard Nixon before a visit by the Mauritian prime minister. As a result:

President Nixon led off the discussion by suggesting that the Prime Minister of a valued American ally restore diplomatic relations with the United States! That way, he said, he could offer America expertise in dry farming. The flummoxed Mauritian, hailing as he did from a lush jungle nation, had little interest in desert farming, so he tried to change the subject, asking Nixon about a space tracking station that the United States operated in his country. The bewildered Nixon scrawled something down on a yellow legal pad and handed it to [Henry] Kissinger. The note read, “Why the hell do we have a space tracking station in a country with which we don’t have diplomatic relations?” (Jennings 2011, P. 37).

North America Bad MapBut if geographical ignorance is pronounced in the United States, even at the highest circles of diplomacy, the problem does seem to be even more extreme in some other parts of the world. The most extraordinary example that I have encountered comes from Pakistan, where it would seem that the problem extends to the country’s highest level of geographical scholarship! I am referring to the 2012 edition of the Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, discussed briefly in a recent GeoCurrents post. As noted there, the atlas has an official status, as its copyright is marked as “Government of Pakistan” and as it was printed by the Survey of Pakistan and published under the direction of Surveyor-General of Pakistan. This atlas also has a relatively high production value, and most of its maps of Pakistan seem to be adequate. But its global and world-regional maps are disastrous. A subsequent post will examine the mapping of religion found in the atlas. For the remained of this post we will consider its political map of North America.

California Bad MapAs a detail taken from the map and posted here reveal, the cartographers who produced this map have little understanding of basic cartographic conventions, do not know the most essential distributional patterns of the cities, states, and road networks of the United States, and apparently do not even fully grasp how transportation systems function (note how many of the railroads on the map are depicted as discontiguous). I have expanded the map’s coverage of California to highlight some of its more amusing errors. Note that the city of “San” is shown as substantially larger than the city of “San Francisco,” both of which have been placed offshore. A quick comparison with a decent map of the region, reproduced here, shows how deep its problems run.

Map of CaliforniaI have a difficult time understanding how such a worthless map could have been be produced. Evidently, the cartographers simply did not bother to do the most basic work, and apparently no one who examined the atlas in the production process knew enough to notice the extraordinary degree of inaccuracy. (Or if they did, they either did not care enough to report such errors or were too intimidated to make such a report.) In conclusion, I can only state that I feel sorry for students of geography in Pakistan. They deserve much better than this.

Simple Map Overlays of Iran Using Presentation Software

Yesterday’s geo-quiz was answered correctly by several readers very quickly: the cities indicated are indeed found in Iran. The point of this exercise, however, was not so much to test knowledge but rather to introduce a simple manner of making and using map overlays, appropriate for elementary and secondary schools across the world. Sophisticated and georectified GIS (Geographical Information Systems) overlays are far superior, but GIS is too demanding for basic use. But one can easily manipulate maps and create overlays with user-friendly presentation software. Over the past several years, I have been making such maps with Apple’s Keynote program. Although Keynote files are easily exported to the more commonly used Powerpoint, something is lost in the process. Today’s post shows what Keynote overlays can accomplish when it comes to the mapping of Iran. Later this week, these Keynote and Powerpoint files will be made available for free downloading.

Let us begin with yesterday’s image of the main cities of Iran, mapped according to population size (all figures are placed below the text). From my Keynote slides, I can simply copy this image and then drop it in an outline map of Iran (Figure 2), generating the third figure found here. I can then place the contents of a spatially adjusted city-name image (Figure 4) on the same map, giving us the more complete presentation of Figure 5. Another Keynote slide contains the shapes of all of Iran’s provinces, with Lake Urmia shown in light blue. Here Iran’s internal provincial boundaries are darker than the country’s external boundaries because they have been manually traced, resulting in the superimposition of the borders of neighboring provinces. Boundary thickness and stroke forms are easily changed (the map here uses the thinnest available setting, .25 px). Again, the information from any or all of the previous maps can easily be copied on to this image, yielding Figure 7.  Another map (Figure 8) contains provincial names, the addition of which yields Figure 9. (Note: I have no good reason for spelling the city “Isfahan” and the province “Esfahan,” as either can be used for either.)

With a few easy clicks and keystrokes, the information on these maps can be deleted, transformed, or moved. To illustrate such possibilities, I have done a few a simple manipulation to the map containing the provincial shapes, assigning each province its own particular color (Figure 10). I can then drag and move the shapes, turning the map into a jigsaw puzzle, as can be seen in Figure 11. Reassembling such a map can be a diverting and informative exercise. (My children tell me that the shapes need to audibly “click” into their correct places when moved, but I am not convinced that such a feature is necessary.) It would make an interesting contest to see who could reassemble such a map most quickly. (The resulting puzzle is more easily solved when the country outline [Figure 2] is added.)

The information on all maps was placed by tracing from other maps found in the public domain, using the tools from the “shapes menu” on Keynote. If one were to use a physical/political map as a base-map, one would thus be able to add a rich topography and elevation layer. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a suitable physical map that includes Iran’s provincial boundaries. I have, however, tried to retroactively fit all of the information that I have traced out on an old physical map of Iran and environs (note the existence of the former neutral zone to the west of Kuwait). The fit is far from perfect, as can been seen by comparing the shape of Lake Urmia on the map with that of my overlay in Figure 12 (as a result, I had to adjust provincial boundaries to match the borders of Iran on the physical map). Despite its poor accuracy, the resulting depiction is still useful for general purposes. To show its capabilities, I have increased the width of the provincial boundaries from .25 px to 1.0 px, highlighted Fars and Razavi Khorasan provinces by coloring them purple and red respectively and setting the opacity at 40 percent, and then added red dots for Shiraz and Mashhad and as well as the labels for both the cities and provinces. The results are far from perfect, but are still useful.

Other approximate overlays can be added using information found on other maps. The remaining maps show the rough transference of some of the patterns found on a precipitation map to the previously discussed maps. The key here is Keynote’s opacity/transparency feature, which allows one to see through any given shape; here the shapes that show the more humid regions of Iran are set at 40% and 50% opacity. The final map shows the relationship of Iran’s major cities to both topography and precipitation.

I think that educational game makers could do many interesting exercises with this kind of map overlay system.

Iran Cities MapIran Outline MapIran Cities Outline MapIran City Names MapIran Cities Names Outline MapIran Provinces map Iran Cities Provinces MapIran Province Names MapIran Cities Provinces Names MapIran Provinces Colors MapIran Provinces Jigsaw MapIran Physical Map OverlayIran Precipitation MapIran Surplus Precipitation  MapIran Physical Surplus Precipitation Map

Gujarat to Ban References to Caste in the Classroom?

The Indian state of Gujarat has recently decided to amend its educational curriculum by removing “all the derogatory or implied references to surnames, castes, religion, profession, region.” The reforms go so far as to prohibit the use of students’ surnames—a caste “give away”—in the classroom.

The maneuver comes at the time of a mounting dispute between the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, and the chief ministers of the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Modi claimed that caste politics have “ruined” Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two of India’s poorest and least socially developed states, which he contrasts unfavorably with rapidly developing Gujarat. The leaders of the poorer states accused Modi, in turn, of exaggerating Gujarat’s achievements and of unfairly dismissing the progress that has occurred in their own states. Journalists sympathetic to their cause have noted that Modi himself frequently engages in caste politics, especially by working with Brahmin organizations.

Modi is a media-savvy and polarizing politician with national ambitions. Coming from a Hindu-nationalist background, he has been charged with complicity in the anti-Muslim mob violence of 2002 that resulted in hundreds of deaths. Supporters credit the ascetic and hard-working chief minister for the rapid economic growth experienced in Gujarat over the past decade. Modi himself is not shy about trumpeting his achievements, as can be seen in the image posted here, taken from his own website.

Modi is currently downplaying Hindu nationalism, reaching out in the process to Muslim voters. Muslims in Gujarat, he recently announced, are better off than Muslims in other India states due to his developmental policies. Modi is also currently discouraging the practice of holding lavish weddings, which he claims puts undue economic hardships on poor and middle-class Gujaratis. He is instead advocating “mass marriages” that involve numerous couples. As reported in Orissa Diary:

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi today expressed satisfaction at greater acceptance of the concept of mass marriage among affluent as well as in tribal families. However, he said, there is need for scientific management of such events. He blessed 251 couple on the occasion. Participating in a multi-caste mass marriage ceremony organized by Sahara Manav Kalyan Trust Vadi at Jhankhvav in Surat district, he said the government has doubled the incentive to brides from Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 to encourage mass marriages.

It takes care of eradicating social evils as well as vulgar display of wealth with families concerned entering into deep debt traps. The Chief Minister was particularly happy at the emancipation of tribal people living in forested areas, their newfound urge for higher studies and joining the mainstream. He said the government has started higher secondary schools in science stream in tribal areas.

On several occasions, the daughters of prostitutes in Gujarat have been forced to marry reluctant men in such mass weddings in order to prevent them from becoming sex workers.


Geography Teachers Assaulted for Not Allowing Students to Cheat

Geography classrooms are not normally associated with violence, but that is not necessarily the case in Pakistan. Just this week, classrooms at Government National College in Karachi were ransacked and several teachers were beaten after they refused to allow students to cheat at the annual examination of a course on commercial geography. According to Dawn, Pakistan’s premier English-language newspaper, the assault was perpetuated by “political groups of outsiders.” As a result of the attack, teachers at the college organized a boycott of exam-grading duties, complaining that the institution’s officials had not taken adequate precautions to prevent violence. The Sindh Professors and Lecturers’ Association “said that it was the failure on part of the college directorate and the law-enforcement agencies that unscrupulous elements had now started demanding cheating facilities so openly and were giving threats to the lives of teachers and other college staffs.”

Cheating on examinations in Pakistan is so prevalent that it has inspired a minor YouTube genre. One recent video recounts the story of a school headmaster being “beaten by an influential feudal lord for not allowing students to cheat during matriculation examination.”


GeoCurrents Master Map

Sample of GeoCurrents Master MapThanks to the skill and effort of GeoCurrents technical expert Kevin Morton, an interactive map linking to previous blog postings is now available. You can access the GeoCurrents Master Map here, or by clicking the banner at the top of each page for future convenience. Pins have been placed on a Google world map to indicate the locations of specific posts. If one hovers over a pin, the opening section of the relevant post will appear on the screen. The full post can be opened by clicking on the pin. Some pins are keyed to multiple posts, samples of which will appear if the pin is clicked. Posts of global scope are pinned  to Stanford University near Palo Alto, California, the home of GeoCurrents. In some places pins are too clustered to discern, but the map can be easily enlarged to spread them out. Although the Google base-map uses a Mercator projection that severely exaggerates the extent of high latitude areas, it is a fully scalable map, allowing one to zoom in on highly specific locations. Such a feature is very valuable in a map of this kind.

The master map immediately shows which parts of the world have been covered extensively in the blog and which have been slighted. As can be immediately seen if one opens the map, northern Eurasia has few posts and southern Africa has none at all. South America has also received relatively little coverage. I was not fully aware of this geographical imbalance until I saw the finished map. As GeoCurrents aims for global coverage, a number of posts will turn to these neglected areas when intensive blogging of current events resumes in September.

Clickable GeoCurrents Base Maps Available for Free Download

Free Download of GeoCurrents Base-MapsDear Readers,

GeoCurrents has been inactive recently, as I have been working on a non-state-based atlas of economic and social development that will appear on the blog later this summer. This project has been demanding, in part because all the information necessary to construct the maps is gathered by, and organized around, states! The new maps will also be much more sophisticated than the maps previously used on GeoCurrents, as they will be based on GIS (geographical information systems) techniques. Previously, all original GeoCurrents maps have been made by hand in Keynote, the Apple presentation program that competes with PowerPoint. Making such maps involves the laborious process of outlining the shapes of geopolitical units on basic maps held in the public domain. Once the outlines have been made, the resulting country-shapes can be easily manipulated through a few simple clicks, allowing one to instantly change country color, boundary color and thickness, and so on.  Keynote’s “shape” feature allows one to easily draw on the maps to show additional features.

Several of these GeoCurrents base maps are now available for free download here: 

Keynote Base Maps (2872 downloads)

If one has an Apple computer and the Keynote program, the maps are remarkably easy to use: just click on a country (or US state) to change it as you see fit. Keynote’s transparency feature is quite useful as well. Country shapes can also be dragged out of place and then placed back where they belong (to place shapes precisely, make sure that the “guidelines” are turned off). The download includes maps of the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, the United States, and a part of the Middle East. Feel free to use these maps as you like.

If you carefully examine these maps, you will see that that the boundary lines are not necessarily of uniform thickness, as the boundaries of adjacent states are not always perfectly traced over each other. One can improve the fit, however, by clicking twice on a given country, focusing in on a segment of its boundary-zone, and then dragging the circles that form the outline to align them more closely with the outline of a neighboring state. It may sound complicated, but Keynote is relatively easy to use, as most of its steps are intuitive.

Uses and Misuses of the Mercator Projection

The World Bank is not the only organization to misemploy the Mercator projection for basic world maps. In a Google image search of “world map,” roughly a third of the initial set of maps returned greatly inflate the high latitudes. Not all, however, grotesquely exaggerate Greenland; one particularly unsightly map, reproduced above, solves the problem by erasing the island. The most egregious misuse of the projection is perhaps found in television newscasts in the United States. Here Mercator’s world image seems to serve as an icon of global breadth, adding gravitas, if counterfeit, to the stories of the day. The image is so emblematic of respectability that a caricature version is employed by the satirical Daily Show. In the image above, a gargantuan Canadian archipelago crowns Jon Stewart. Note as well the attenuated and misshapen depiction of India, the slug-shaped Japan, and the numerous non-existent land bridges.

The Mercator projection was designed by its creator for shipboard use, the title of the original map telling us as much: Nova et aucta orbis terrae description ad usum navigantium emendate et accomodata (“new and improved description of the world amended and intended for the use of navigators”). Critical thinkers have long noted the absurdity of using Mercator projections for general purposes. In 1943, the New York Times opined that, “We cannot forever mislead children and even college students with grossly inaccurate pictures of the world.”* Yet mislead them we still do, although to a lesser extent than in the mid-twentieth century.

That is not to say, however, that the only appropriate uses of the projection are navigational. Google Maps, for example, employs Mercator’s perspective because it retains the correct shape of landmasses at any scale of resolution. (Or, as the Wikipedia puts it, “Despite its obvious scale variation at small scales, the projection is well-suited as an interactive world map that can be zoomed seamlessly to large-scale (local) maps, where there is relatively little distortion due to the projection’s near-conformality.”) As a result, Google Maps are quite serviceable for local or regional uses, but at the global scale they are worse then useless, depicting Ellesmere Island (population 146) in the Canadian arctic, for example as roughly the same size as Australia.

A considered defense of the Mercator projection is found in Andrew Taylor’s The World of Gerard Mercator: The Mapmaker Who Revolutionized Geography (2004, Walker & Company, New York). The book is well written and well researched, recommended to anyone interested in the history of cartography. Taylor’s vindication of his subject’s famous projection, however, is poorly considered. He embraces the Mercator projection for general purposes essentially because it is widely embraced: “It is Mercator’s map that appears on schoolroom walls, in diaries and magazines, and, most important of all, in peoples’ minds. That approval is the ultimate democracy” (p. 255). Such claims are extraordinarily anti-intellectual; if nonsense is widely held, we are told, it should be celebrated, as anything else would be an anti-democratic insult to the will of the people.

Epistemological populism, which equates truth with popularity, is a rare and extremist stance. It is difficult to imagine its claims being made so boldly in fields other than geography. When it comes to geography, however, lower standards often apply.

*The quotation is from Andrew Taylor’s book, referenced above.

How Many Continents Are There?

How many continents are there?Zealandia, New Caledonia

The main problem with the continental scheme of world division is its mixture of physical geographical criteria (continents are defined as landmasses more or less separated from each other by waterways) with human geographical criteria (Europe is separated from Asia not by the physical landscape but by historical and cultural features). Intellectual coherence calls for one basis of division or the other. When human features are favored, the continental architecture vanishes altogether as North Africa joins the quasi-continent of the “Middle East,” while Latin America links southern North America with South America. Continents are thus essentially regions of physical geography, and should be defined accordingly.

But the standard physical definition of continents remains problematic, as the “more or less” formulation allows conceptual slippage. In much of the world, North and South America are viewed as a single continent, since they are clearly connected by the Panamanian isthmus. But by the same criterion, Eurasia and Africa would also have to be regarded as a single continent, Afroeurasia. And if one takes a long historical perspective, the Americas and Afroeurasia together form a single super-landmass. They are not separated by deep water, and they have been periodically joined together over the past few hundred thousand years; when the world goes into a glacial period, sea levels drop and the vast plains of Beringia emerge to link the two lands. When Beringia appears, temperate and arctic animals migrate between the continents. As a result, the fauna of temperate North America and Eurasia are remarkably similar. Even during non-glacial periods the circum-polar region forms a zone of inter-continental linkage, as is clearly visible on the Dymaxion projection map above.

A strict physical definition would thus hold continents to be landmasses enduringly separated from other landmasses by relatively deep waterways. If one employs this scheme of division, a very different map of the world emerges, one dominated by a mega-continent that we might call Amerafroeurasia, or simply “The World Continent.” This landmass is divided into the macro-continents of the Americas and Afroeurasia, which in turn are split into the “continentoids” of North America, South America, Eurasia, and Africa (the term “continentoid” indicates that these lands are not actually separated by water). A third order division of the world continent separates associated large islands and island groups, most of which are joined with the landmass during glacial periods.

Clearly separated from Amerafroeurasia are the meso-continents of Australia (including New Guinea) and Antarctica, which have not been connected to other lands for millions of years. As a result of such separation, Australia has a highly distinctive fauna. By the same token, Madagascar and New Zealand may be considered micro-continents. Focusing in still more closely, one may even distinguish nano-continents, such as New Caledonia. A nano-continent is distinguished from a mere oceanic island (such as Hawaii) by the fact that it is composed of continental crust that long ago hived off from a larger landmass. Alternatively, both New Caledonia and New Zealand can be regarded as fragments of the largely submerged meso-continent of Zealandia (see map above).

Nonsense about Continents

Basic geographical education in the United States remains, in a word, pathetic. As students are required to learn virtually nothing about the world, we should not be surprised that few young Americans have any idea where Iraq or Afghanistan are located. And the one locational lesson in global geography that young students are required to master, that of the “seven continents,” is, in a word, nonsense. The absurdity of the continental framework is readily apparent in a lesson plan found on the My Schoolhouse website, a prominent educational resource. The page begins by informing students that, “the seven continents are North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica.” But the map placed immediately below this assertion (see above) portrays Central America, the Middle East, and Greenland exactly as they do North America, Africa, and the other supposed continents. True irrationality comes with a question listed below the map: “What continent appears to be part of Asia?” But “Europe” and “Asia,” along with “Middle East,” appear on this map merely as labels attached to different areas of a single landmass. As such, students could just as easily deduce that “Asia appears to be part of Europe.”

Nonsense about the supposed continents extends well beyond elementary education. My favorite absurdity comes with the mountaineering quest to bag the “seven summits,” defined as the highest peaks on each of the world’s continents. The list includes some formidable peaks – but it also takes in Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, a gentle rise that one could surmount on a bicycle, if only authorities would allow it. To be sure, Reinhold Messner proposed dropping Kosciuszko in favor of New Guinea’s Puncak Jaya, which is indeed a difficult climb. By any reasonable standard, Messner was absolutely correct: New Guinea is part of the same piece of continental crust as Australia (see map), and is thus by continental criteria as much part of Australia as Japan is part of Asia. But despite Messner’s fame – and demands of reason – Kosciuszko remains standard.

So what is the actual continental architecture of the world? That issue will be addressed in tomorrow’s post.

Geo-Trivia: Enclaves, counter-enclaves, and (the world’s only) counter-counter-enclave

 Sovereign states (or countries) generally appear on the map as solid, contiguous blocks of territory, and they are certainly conceptualized as such. But exceptions abound. Many countries, for example, have separates “annexes” located at some distance, technically known as exclaves (think of Alaska). Bits of territory within the boundaries of one state that belong to another are defined as enclaves. Entire countries can be enclaved within another sovereign state, such as Lesotho in South Africa or San Marino in Italy.

Enclaves and exclaves are generally fairly straightforward, but they can become quite intricate. A counter-enclave, for example, is an enclave within an enclave. Thus the village of Nawha is part of the United Arab Emirates, yet is wholly surrounded by a part of Oman called Madha, yet Madha itself is wholly surrounded by territory belonging to the United Arab Emirates (see map). As Evgeny Vinokurov shows in his A Theory of Enclaves (2007, Lexington Books), this pattern can be taken one more step. Thus Dahala-Khagrabari is a sliver of Indian territory (a jute field, more or less) that is surrounded by Bangladeshi territory that is surrounded by Indian territory that is surrounded by Bangladeshi territory: a counter-counter-enclave, in other words. Must make immigration control rather interesting.