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American Students Show Deadly Ignorance of Geography

April 23, 1985 GMT

DETROIT (AP) _ Outdated teaching methods have produced a generation of college students with a dangerous ignorance of geography that could lead to a repetition of past errors, says the head of the National Geographic Society.

″I’m suggesting that ignorance kills, and I’m suggesting that if you are ignorant, you aren’t going to go very far in the world,″ Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the fifth of his family to lead the society, said Monday.

A knowledge of geography would have taught American leaders in the 1960s ″that the artificial boundaries of Vietnam that split across strong tribes ... would not work,″ Grosvenor told the Economic Club of Detroit as part of the 81st annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. ″An ‘F’ in geography obviously helped trigger our original involvement.″

Construction of ″eastern-style suburbs in the desert″ is causing increasing water shortages in the American West, he said. ″Well before the end of this century, the Sun Belt could become the thirst belt, and many developers will have flunked geography.″

American companies have ″flunked the lesson of Japan,″ he said. ″I would think the Japanese have also flunked a little bit, too. They’ve certainly flunked the human geography in dealing with their markets.

″We know about malnutrition but we know very little of where millions are dying of famine. ″How can we help Africa when we don’t know where Africa is?″

Grosvenor cited examples of geographic ignorance:

-A survey of one university found that 95 percent of the newly enrolled freshmen could not point out Vietnam on a map.

-In a Dallas secondary school, 20 percent of the children faced with a globe and asked to point out the United States put their country in Brazil.

-In a college survey, 70 percent of the students could not name the two smallest states.

College freshmen should be tested on their knowledge of geography and required to take a remedial course if they fail, Grosvenor said. ″But it ought to be a darn good test. To me, to graduate a kid from college when he barely knows how to drive home is a darn shame.″

Students no longer take an interest in geography because it is taught by old-fashioned, dull methods, he said.″In America, the television image, the moving image, has so dominated our culture that we have become immune to traditional teaching methods.


″The moving image is here to stay, and we must harness that image and use it constructively.

‴The Dukes of Hazzard’ reaches them. Sex and violence ad nauseum on television reaches them. Video games reach them. If you can’t fight them, join them.″

The 97-year-old society has recently started producing a weekly TV program for Nickelodeon, the children’s cable-television channel, and is developing home-computer games to help teach geography, Grosvenor said.

Teachers, however, have been slow to adapt, he said.″Some of them resist the moving image because they’ve been teaching for 30 years and are reluctant to change.″