The Need for Geography Lessons

National Geographic has recently released a story about a survey they conducted to evaluate geography skills of young adults (ages 18-24) in the US. The results are disturbing. Here is their summary:

  • Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.
  • 6 in 10 young Americans don’t speak a foreign language fluently.
  • 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It’s the largest country in Africa.)
  • 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It’s Hindu—by a landslide.)
  • Half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map.

As a big proponent of Google Earth, I certainly believe all people should become more geographically aware. So, I whoeheartedly support raising awareness to learn more about geography. One of National Geographics’ objectives is to try to raise awareness of the importance of geography, and they have produced a heavily sponsored web site called “My Wonderful World” to increase global learning. So, it is only natural they concentrate on publishing the negative aspects of the survey results.

As an American myself, I was at first really concerned about these results. So, I had to look a little deeper at the survey. If you read the full report (PDF) you will find some good news: 1) the majority of young adults use the Internet; 2) those who use the Internet for news score better than those who don’t (and would have scored much better if they could have used Google Earth to answer questions); 3) half of the respondents said map reading skills are “absolutely necessary” in today’s world; 4) Of the 20 questions in the survey, over 50% of the questions were answered correctly – or almost correct (in my opinion some of the questions were easy to miss by young American adults given how the US news media reports) – by the majority of the respondents.
Some other things to note: the maps provided in the survey did not include labels, were black and white, and resolution was not very detailed. New York is a weird state geographically and I bet respondents would have done better if told to point the approximate location of NYC. Also, many of the respondents did worse on questions about places furthest away from their daily lives such as Asia (that seems normal to me).

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.


  1. I guess it is not just the geography stuff what it lacks the american educational system. Nice to teach young guys about patriotism and related. But world does not end in Tijuana. I am european and once I got a visit from a “supposed” cosmoguy who asked me how for heavens sake we had teathers and cinemas in Europe!
    Quite depresing for the so called most powerful country in the world. Maybe a side effect of this imperialism is the lack of quality in education?

  2. Adriana says:

    I visited the site, Frank! Wonderful! I’m just a geography buff, you know! And I subscribe for National Goegraphic maganize here in Brazil. It’s great! Thanks for the tip!

  3. Stefan Knutson says:

    Attention geography buffs: Everyone who is looking for ways to increase world geographic knowledge through a fun and exciting way needs to check out “Earth Adventure” – a non-profit organization based out of Minneapolis, MN USA. “Earth Adventure” uses the “Earth Balloon,” a 20 foot high, satellite representation of the earth. It acts as a portable classroom where 30 people can go inside of it at a time to learn about the earth and see it from a whole different perspective. Check it out at: !

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