Thursday, October 23, 2008

Where in the World is...?

It almost doesn't matter how the college catalog describes the courses I teach; inevitably I'm going to find myself teaching all kinds of things that are seemingly not related to the subject of the course. I work on the assumption that college seniors have a certain amount of common knowledge; you know what they say about assumptions and assuming.There are gaps in my students' knowledge that I am constantly tripping over. Instead of just shaking my head I try and fill in at least some of these gaps.

One area where students are lacking is in their knowledge of geography. My brother is the chair of the geography department at one of the California State University colleges, and he routinely tears his hair out at what the students don't know. And what they don't know can hurt them.

A student came to me for help in editing a major research project he was doing for one of the business departments. The paper was in excess of thirty pages and was an analysis of business trends in the US, particularly focusing on the Sunbelt states. And there is where the problem began. This student defined "Sunbelt" as those states where there is likely to be sunshine throughout most of the year (part of the definition but not all of it). Thus, he included in the Sunbelt Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. He also included Texas and New Mexico. He left out California, Nevada and Oklahoma and Tennessee etc.. Before we could even begin to edit his paper, I brought in blank maps of the US. Some were divided by region, some by state borders. I discovered that he 1)couldn't fill in the names of all 50 states and 2) had no real idea as to which states fell in which regions of the country.

And so I find myself every term bringing in blank maps and giving mini lessons on the geography of the US, as well as world geography. Certainly Iraq is a focus of world attention right now. 97% of my students couldn't locate Iraq on a map. Only one student could correctly identify where Afghanistan was.

For parents with younger children, I highly recommend teaching geography on a daily basis. There are lots of blank maps available online. Start with the US and build from there. Add a state every day. Cut the maps apart and have the children put them back together like doing a puzzle.

We live in a global society today and it behooves us to know where everyone is located. How can we speak of world trends and world problems if we literally have no idea where in the world some (most) of the world's hot spots are? I had a student who once wrote a paper in which she outlined some solutions to the drug importation problem. She suggested that we erect the kind of border fence between Mexico and Colombia that is being suggested for between us and Mexico. Such a fence, she posited would be easier to patrol and would cut illegal drug running way down. When I pointed out that her solution was geographically impossible she thought I was wrong. When I showed her on a map where Colombia was physically located she was reallly puzzled. As she said: "From the way the newspapers talk, you get the idea that the Colombian druglords are almost our next door neighbors." Sigh.

Note: Just in case you were wondering, the Sunbelt states are: Florida, Texas, California*, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada**, New Mexico, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma.
*Not all of California is in the Sunbelt. The part that is comprises the 10 counties south of the 36th north latitude.
**Nevada includes only Clark County, which contains Las Vegas.


G said...

-True story-
(traveling from Baltimore to a city in the mid-west)

Me: Okay, I'll see next week
Roommate: What? Where are you going?
Me: Home...for Shabbos?
Roommate: But it's already Thursday night!?
Me: aaaaaaaaaaand?
Roommate: How will you get there in time? Isn't it like a 15 hour drive?
Me: Where axactly do you think I live, Texas?
Roommate: No, I thought it was like somewhere in

--who wants to take bets on which city's citizens have the poorest concept of the geography outside their "boundaries"?

Anonymous said...

It's not just the students. Until only recently if you went to Mapquest and typed in New York City as your starting destination and London, England--or any city in the world--as your final destination they gave you a driving map including expected mileage.I discovered this a few years back when one of my kids was assigned for school to find all the ways you could get from NY to London. He knew we used Mapquest a lot so he went there first. Thankfully Mapquest has fixed this bug and hopefully there will be no more kids, and adults, who think they can drive across the Atlantic Ocean.

Anonymous said...

Seems like google maps did away with this, but they used to have directions which tongue in cheek used to say:

"Swim across the Atlantic Ocean"

Anonymous said...

The real problem is not that the student didn't know off the top of his head which states are where, or which compose the Sunbelt. It is that he thought, apparently, that he could write a 30 page paper on the subject without bothering to look it up.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking that too Mike. Why didn't this student look up which states are in the Sun Belt? Of course, why should he be different then a lot of students who just assume they know things and don't bother to check. My students are high schoolers and they first learned about the planets when they were in the lower grades. When I asked them as part of a homework assignment how many planets there were they thought I was crazy to even be asking. All of them answered nine except for the student who said ten. Somehow they missed the Pluto controversy. And not one student looked up the answer.

But the posting is right that students today just don't know their geography. I was talking about Continental Drift and I could see some funny looks on my students' faces. Just for fun I asked them to name all the continents. Shocked me that they all couldn't do so.

mlevin said...

Oh come on, there had always been people who are just ignorant. For example I was once talking to this woman who is forever complaining about poor state of American Education. This woman is from Ukraine and she said,
“… So we went to Europe”.
“Europe?” I interrupted, “where were you traveling from?”
She gave me why-weren’t-you-listening? look and replied, “Home”
“But I thought you lived in Ukraine?” I questioned
“Yes, I was traveling from home to Europe…”
“But Ukraine is in Europe” I interrupted again
“No, it’s not”
“Are you saying Ukraine is in Asia?”
“So, where is Ukraine if it’s not in Europe and if it’s not in Asia?”
“It’s between the two…”
“You can’t be between Europe and Asia. Where one ends the other begins…”
“Don’t give me lessons in geography; I’m 15 years older than you…”
“…But you can’t live between Europe and Asia…”
“… And I received Soviet Education, while you received a mediocre American…”
The conversation proceeded in this manner with other people getting involved and taking sides. That’s right. More people thought that Ukraine was between Europe and Asia. Eventually, this woman’s teenage niece brought her World History Text book to settle the argument. This woman grabbed the book and went straight to the map section, after a few seconds she went on,
“This stupid American map doesn’t even have Russia on it…”
“How could a world map not have Russia? You must be looking at the wrong map…”
“No, I’m looking at the right map. They have Morocco and Sudan…” At this point I couldn’t take it anymore and grabbed the book.

A Living Nadneyda said...

If you really want to up the ante, try asking someone in the U.S. to name his/her state's top five products, agricultural or otherwise. (Ours -- when I lived in sunny Calif -- was once rumored to be marijuana, or so they claimed...)

Bas~Melech said...

Mike took the words out of my -- uh, keyboard.

I don't either know offhand exactly which states are in the Sunbelt. But for goodness' sake, WHAT did he write 30 pages of if he doesn't even know the topic of his research?! Why is it only at the end of the project that he considers which states should be in it?


Look, I don't expect anyone to know everything, especially not at a young age. But I DO expect them to know how to find information when they need it, especially in this age of the internet.