That National Geographic Survey
Last week, the National Geographic Society released the results of the 2006 National Geographic-Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy, which tested young American adults aged 18 to 24 on their geographic knowledge. It’s probably not surprising that the results were not good: despite saturation coverage of the Middle East, most could not find Iraq, Iran, North Korea or Afghanistan on the map; but half couldn’t even find New York on a map of the U.S. The full, 89-page report, with summary, questions and methodology, is available here (PDF).
National Geographic is using the report as the impetus for launching a geographic literacy campaign called My Wonderful World; there was also a one-hour special on the National Geographic Channel last Thursday.
(There was a similar survey conducted in 2002; it tested 18- to 24-year-olds in several countries, not just the U.S.)
It’s worth mentioning that geographic literacy is essential if people are even going to begin to understand the maps out there: electoral maps of the U.S. showing blue, red or purple states are meaningless if few people know where Ohio or Florida is; cartograms are meaningless if few people understand the true shape of the world. It is, in some ways, a matter of shape recognition: knowing, for example, that this squiggly bit is Austria and that squiggly bit is Italy.
But a related issue is cartographic literacy (rather than geographic literacy): the ability to figure out where you are and where you’re going from a map. Not knowing basic facts about India is a problem in the context of global awareness; not knowing how to read a road map is a problem in the context of day-to-day life. The survey does address this question as well: half to two-thirds of respondents were able to answer basic navigational questions based on a fictional map.