U.S. Citizens Worry Me

I’m trying to get out of the habit of saying, “Americans.” As a society, we are really a self-centered lot. North America is comprised of both Canada and the United States. Technically, a Canadian could call herself an “American,” as she lives on the continent of North America. But, would that make people living in the United States, er, “Statesians?” or, “USians?”

Someone living in Mexico could call themselves an “American,” too. By some geographers account, Mexico is part of North America. I tend to prefer to link Mexico with Central America. Even so, “Central America” is an “America,” thus qualifying anyone from the Rio Grande to the Panama Canal to adopt the moniker of “American.”

South America is also an “America.” A few years ago, I spoke with someone from Brazil. The running joke in Brazil is people in the United States think their country is the only one in the Western Hemisphere. Brazilians, I was told, are “Americans” as much as residents of the United States.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying these other “Americans” fall under protection of the United States Constitution, nor are governed by U.S. Civil and Criminal Codes. I am saying anyone essentially living in the Western Hemisphere, from an area historically described as being the “Americas” has as much right to call themselves an “American” as anyone in the United States.

Which brings me to a couple points, the first I will cover here, the other I will cover in a second post.

Each semester, the very first activity I engage in, before I even determine attendance, or recite the syllabus, is give a map quiz. My map quiz is not any old map quiz. I present the students with a world map. I ask they identify 18 specific countries. The 18 countries I have them attempt to locate are countries featured prominently in the news: Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on. I tabulate correct responses and create a frequency distribution.

At the end of the semester, students making their way to the end of the course are then presented with the same map and asked to identify the same collection of countries. I tabulate correct responses and create a second frequency distribution.

I’ve been collecting statistics for about 8 years or so.

I have no idea if college students are representative of the U.S. population. At first blush, I would say, No, simply based on the fact more than 2/3rds of the U.S. population never receive a college degree.

Walking in the door and sitting down at a desk, the initial results I find disturbing. Also, the initial results have not appeared to significantly improve over my measurement period. Thus, I can only conclude people are just as uninformed today as they were in 2004.

Here are some notable statistics:

Despite having been actively engaged in Afghanistan & Iraq for 10 years or so, both countries are the most commonly misidentified countries, at 99% error rate.

Many people self-identify as “Christian” yet cannot find Israel on a map of the world, with an error rate of 95%, only slightly less than Afghanistan or Iraq.

Venezuela, an important supplier of oil products to the United States, fares about the same as Israel, as does Pakistan and North Korea.

Do people ever incorrectly identify the United States? Yes, a few individuals cannot locate the United States on a world map. The error does not happen very often; out of 100 students I can almost guarantee at least one person will not correctly identify the United States. Whereas about 1% will miss the United States, about 5% will miss Mexico.

Finally, most of my college students cannot label correctly all 50 United States. I’m still working on current statistics, but historically greater than 90% of college students taking my courses cannot identify all 50 United States.

We are buffered by two of the world’s largest oceans. Yet, in today’s globalized economies, I cannot find any excuse or reason why we, U.S. citizens, should have such a poor grasp of our planet’s geography.

I would like to give a map exam to all of our state and national leaders, see how well they do. Then, fire all the ones which get less than a 70% (C).

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