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.

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