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Don't Know Much About Geography

by Lory Hough

Illustration of chalkboard mapIn many ways, it shouldn't come as a shock, but it still does: Last year, when the National Geographic Society surveyed 18- to 24-year-old Americans to find out what they knew about the world, only 37 percent could find Iraq on a map, despite the fact that U.S. troops have been in that country since 2003. (Places closer to
home didn't fare much better: 50 percent couldn't locate New York, the country's third largest state.)

And it wasn't just geography that highlighted their lack of what Ed School alum Bill Jaeger, Ed.M.'03, calls "planet awareness": More than 70 percent thought English was the most spoken native language in the world (it's Mandarin Chinese) and only 10 percent communicated regularly with anyone outside the United States. (With only 22 percent having a passport, most didn't travel abroad, either.)

Are American students "as dumb as rocks," as the Weekly Standard newspaper once called them, or are schools to blame for failing to teach them that there is life outside their own communities?


Schools Empty of Their Purpose

Although Ed School Professor Fernando Reimers, Ed.M'84, Ed.D.'88, doesn't think kids are dumb and he doesn't necessarily blame schools, he does think schools have to do a much better job of helping students in the United States be more "globally competent."

"A decade ago, the average high school student took three civics courses in order to graduate. Now it's just one, and it's usually taught in the last year. Half of Latino students don't make it that far in school," he said. "The schools are not really asking the question, What do you need to know now to be an effective and competent global citizen?"

In other words, they're not helping to develop full citizens who understand what democracy is and why it breaks down, what their rights and responsibilities are toward one another, or what role international institutions play in advancing human rights. And this requires more than just finding Iraq on a map. It's about digging deeper. Much deeper.

We can't do this, he said, when we short change social studies, geography, and foreign language classes, as more and more schools have in recent years.

According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, for example, only 31 percent of American elementary schools report teaching foreign languages. High schools and colleges aren't much better: only 44 percent of high schoolers and 8 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in a second language.

"Schools have been emptied of their civic purpose," Reimers said. "This is preventing children from developing a purpose bigger than themselves. That doesn't serve the nation well."

"Just as computer literacy became an increasing necessity to live in a changing world in the last decade, global cultural literacy should now occupy the same importance in our schools." –Michael Lisman, Ed.M.’05Michael Lisman, Ed.M.'05, a graduate of the International Education Policy Program that Reimers directs, worked with Massachusetts Representative Kay Khan on recent legislation that makes international education a priority in the state. He says the time for global competence is now.

"Just as computer literacy became an increasing necessity to live in a changing world in the last decade, global cultural literacy should now occupy the same importance in our schools," said Lisman, now a coordinator for Inter-American Dialogue in Central America and the Caribbean.

This is especially critical in an era of accelerated globalization -- the buzzword used when talking about the breakdown of national borders and the interconnectedness of information, ideas, and economies across the world.

Jaeger, who serves as the social studies department team leader at a magnet school in Bloomfield, Conn., said American students need to understand that globalization isn't just a buzzword -- it personally affects them.

"We are in an unprecedented era of globalization where students will be competing for jobs and for market shares of businesses with not just students the next town over or the next state over," he said, "but rather the next 10 time zones over."


How Did We Get Here?

The problem is, while globalization is asking students to expand their knowledge and understanding of the world, several factors are making this more difficult to do.

For starters, the United States has become, as the Washington Post once called it, Test Nation. High stakes tests mandated by state laws and the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have forced curriculums to focus almost exclusively on math, reading, and science, leaving little room for anything else. As a result, students are "being trained, not educated," said the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Assistant Professor Hunter Gehlbach said schools are under a lot of pressure to reach certain goals.

"This filters down and the message is clear: Increase test scores," he said. "One thing not on standardized tests is a question like, Can you make sense out of this person's actions in history?"

He saw this first-hand when he taught western civ to 10th graders at a school outside of Philadelphia.

"My students did a good job of taking the perspective of historical figures -- for example, what Native Americans might have been thinking when Columbus came off the boat," he said, "but two weeks later, the same students might blow up at each other and not be able to take the perspective of a classmate that they had known for years."

This lack of interpersonal perspective taking is particularly problematic as the nation becomes more ethnically diverse, Reimers said. In 1970, blacks and Latinos made up 16 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census. By 2050, they will become almost 40 percent.

For some students, this lack of relevancy of education translates into more than just the inability to answer simple geography questions in school or speak a second language. It translates into: I'm checking out mentally and, in some cases, physically.

"A recent study of high school dropouts in the United States confirms that the students who abandon high school are not necessarily those with the lowest levels of academic performance," Reimers said, "but those who do not find high schools challenging and do not see how continuing in school will fit with their own life plans and expectations."

“Literacy is a priority and an important step to understanding social studies." –Helena Payne, Ed.M.'06, Of course, not everyone sees high-stakes testing as completely negative when it comes to social studies and history. Training students to be better readers, for instance, may help them better grasp a chapter on the Constitution.

"Literacy is a priority and an important step to understanding social studies," said Helena Payne, Ed.M.'06, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia. "Reading is difficult for some students, so focusing on literacy helps them better understand the material. It's complementary."


Other Factors

Although it's easy to just blame NCLB for the demise of social studies and the lack of global courses, there are other factors that have also left their mark. Some say the decline started well before the 2002 act was signed into law. As far back as the late 1890s, the United States has debated the importance of
straightforward history classes versus a "progressive" curriculum that integrates social issues and looks to the future.

Others say students themselves are partly to blame: they just aren't interested. In the 1984 book A Place Called School, author John Goodlad wrote that social studies was rated by elementary school students as the most difficult and least interesting subject -- just after science.

Reimers is quick to point out that if this is in fact true -- if students aren't interested -- adults need to do a better job of making the material relevant to their lives.

"If you teach a student to memorize the Constitution, they'll find it boring," he said.

Another factor is nationalist fear of losing traditions. As a result, getting schools to add new courses can be difficult.

"Efforts to introduce separate international courses in the curriculum have faced much resistance from different constituencies and have rarely been scaled up successfully," Reimers said.

Sophia Gorgodze, Ed.M.'07, a native of Georgia, said that balancing national and local with international can be positive for countries, especially when it comes to tolerance.

"Not that all traditions are always good, but they communicate who we are and where we come from," she said. "However, by upholding the values of global citizenship and being tolerant to change, we have a better chance of succeeding economically, enjoying social unity, and making a diff erence on a global scale."


Tolerance, Too

It's tolerance -- or the lack of -- that makes Reimers and others even more passionate about global education.

“By upholding the values of global citizenship and being tolerant to change, we have a better chance of succeeding economically, enjoying social unity, and making a difference on a global scale." – Sophia Gorgodze, Ed.M.’07 In May 2004, he spoke before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences about the beheadings of Nick Berg, an American contractor, and Daniel Pearl, an American journalist, both in Iraq. He talked about the mistreatment of prisoners of war and the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

"I refuse to accept that violence of some humans against others is inevitable," he said. "I believe, as a species, we have the capacity to educate people to understand that what we share in common with others is much greater than what sets us apart."

"People can be educated to be more or less cosmopolitan or tolerant," he later wrote in Prospects.

"Indeed, often the evils that threaten today's world come not from those who lack basic skills," Gorgodze said, "but rather from otherwise 'educated' individuals who do not internalize the values of global citizenship."

This is exactly why she and another Ed School student, Inbal Alon, Ed.M.'07, started Education for Global Citizenship, a student-led group that brings international speakers to campus and gives students a chance to discuss global issues.

One of the goals of the group, said Alon, who was born in Canada and grew up in Israel and the United States, is to understand how citizenship and a respect for diversity develop.

"I started talking to people about how citizenship develops," she said. "For some people, it starts out with family. For others it was a friend from another country or something they heard at school. For a lot of people, there isn't necessarily a moment, but growing up in a global era, they just sensed the necessity of adapting to how the world was changing."

And schools, she said, are the obvious place to bring it all together, especially when kids are young.

"We live in a time when children are getting a lot of messages from different sources -- family, media, friends -- so it's really important for schools to be a place where they can synthesize it," she said. "It's a service to young people and to the global community."


About the Article

A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Respond to this story with an e-mail to the editor.


Illustration by Jon Cannell

Ed Magazine: Winter 2007

Letters to the Editor


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