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Home » Cartography, Geographical Education, Geographical Thought, North America

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

Submitted by on April 30, 2014 – 11:55 am 22 Comments |  
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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  • Chris in Binghamton

    So many crazy things on this map… Port Arthur has been Thunder Bay in Ontario since 1970… The State of Virginia also appears to incorporate Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. Thanks for sharing, Prof. Lewis!

    • Indeed! I thought of making a list of errors, but it quickly became too long.

  • Y

    Did Nixon think he was speaking with someone from Mauritania?

  • Xezlec

    I’m dumb enough to be president! Before looking it up, I had just the vaguest notion that Mauritius might be an island somewhere, and Mauritania might be in Africa. I had no idea of the details offhand. I suppose it’s hard to maintain knowledge about things you aren’t frequently exposed to.

    • Thanks for the amusing response! Mauritius is indeed somewhat obscure, but it is a very interesting place. More to the point, there are really not that many sovereign states in the world (around 200), and it is really not so difficult at all to learn their names and locations. When done through a gaming format, as on Sporcle, many (most?) people find doing so rather fun.

      The average American college student easily knows 200 rock bands, 200 celebrities, and 200 sports franchises, Why then is learning 200 countries such a strain on the memory banks?

      • Xezlec

        Again, I think the answer is frequency of reference. Those rock bands, celebrities, and sports franchises presumably come up a lot in conversation. And besides, someone in any field could make the same argument, don’t you think? A chemist could say the same about the elements, a historian about US presidents, a biologist about the animal phyla and classes, etc. I, for one, don’t know why people have a hard time remembering 200 or so basic Linux commands! 🙂

        • Good points — which make me admit, with some embarrassment, that I don’t know all of the elements. But I should: such ignorance represents a lapse in my own education. I do have a decent knowledge of taxonomy, although I have not kept up with all of the changes (the mammalian order Insectivora does not even exist any longer, and I have not committed such terms as “Eulipotyphla” and “Afrosoricida” to memory.)

          But as far as general education is concerned, I think that the essential issue is not frequency in conversation, but rather frequency in the news. To be educated, a person must, to some degree, keep up with the news (or so I think). Here (I imagine!) obscure countries come up with much more frequency than obscure elements or obscure biologic taxa.

  • barzai

    Meh. With the egregious exception of the Nixon (really State Department) mixup, most of these fall in the category of what economists refer to as “rational ignorance”: the tendency of people not to spend too much of their precious time acquiring knowledge that isn’t going to be of much use in their private lives. (I hasten to add my description is a paraphrase and a vast oversimplification).

    I appreciate that, on a blog dedicated to affairs geographical, it may come as a shock that most people don’t know much about geography, but…there it is.

    Incidentally, this is a classic instance of professional deformation.

    • Interesting and important point, although, in large part, I don’t agree. “Rational ignorance” may be a passable excuse for many individuals, although I do find it significant that (according to the Washington Post piece) Americans who are most ignorant about Ukraine tend to have particularly strong opinions about what the U.S. should do in regard to the country’s current plight.

      For political leaders, on the other hand, there is simply no excuse. Geographical gaffes are an on-going and major source of embarrassment for U.S. administrations. More to the point, can people ignorant of the world devise worthwhile foreign policies? Somehow I doubt it.

      • barzai

        Agree completely…but at least in the cited instance involving Nixon and Mauritius / Mauritania, the fault clearly lay with the folks who prepared him for the meeting. At that level, you’re the captive of your staff for a lot of this stuff: after all, neither of the countries involved is much more than a tiny flyspeck on the US radar.

        I think it fair to say that Nixon would not have needed any help if he’d been meeting with a world power, an important ally, or both in one.

    • SirBedevere

      I would place no importance on geographical ignorance, except for the ridiculous American tradition of electing leaders responsible for foreign affairs. As long a the voters are ignorant, the representatives voted for can remain safely in ignorance.

      • Point taken. But it does boggle my mind that most people seem to think that the world is such an uninteresting place that there is no point learning anything about it. But I suppose that my mind functions differently from most ….

        • SirBedevere

          Sorry, a bit to close to sarcasm for the written word. Of course, I am quite fond of representative democracy, and therefore I think that geographical knowledge is essential for any voter. Like most voters on this blog, I find it interesting in itself, but I also think it is as essential as a knowledge of mathematics or English.

  • Daniel Ezra Johnson

    What happened to Pereltsvaig?

  • Fwenchfwies

    Well, come on, you could proof-read your post before publishing it! All the errors that are in it are very similar to the errors on the map!

    As for Mauritius and Mauritania, I know plenty of people from both these places and so can locate them accurately.

  • James Mayfield

    Haha and Los Angeles is north of Santa Barbara….I tell ya that city of “San” is just gorgeous. The Indians occupied an island there once I think.

  • Jake Turk

    Milwaukee has switched places with La Crosse. As a Racinian, I’m OK with this.

  • David Kessel

    But Pakistan is not a superpower. It’s a developing country and very poor. You will not see such a map by Brits, Canadian,etc.

    Plus it deals with inner particularities of certain states. It correctly placed the US in North America.

    But putting Ukraine near Australia… hmm

  • Martin

    Screw academia. May the people of Pakistan have universal Internet connection instead. Maybe most of them wouldn’t use it to educate themselves, but thanks to the access, those who want to would have the opportunity.