As Canadians, we like to feel superior to Americans. We like to point out that Americans have a poor knowledge of geography outside their own borders and when surveyed, the results are truly dismal. A 2006 survey showed that nine in ten American youth couldn’t identify Afghanistan on a map.
But I prefer to look at our own failings in order to improve rather than look at the failings of others in order to gloat. Rebels recently overthrew the government of an African nation called the Central African Republic. Do you know where it is? Do you know what countries it borders? Do you know the political status of those countries? Maybe that’s asking too much. How many African countries can you name? I’ll give you a hint: there are 54 recognized by international law and 11 territories of de facto states. Really, try it! Make a list and see how many you can name. You can test yourself here.
You may say “What does that war have to do with us way over here in North America?” Well lets look at a case that you ought to know all about: Afghanistan. After all we were at war with the the Taliban in Afghanistan for over a decade and the war continues now without Canada’s help. What countries border Afghanistan? What languages do they speak? What’s their racial origin? Is afghanistan in the middle east? Lots of people think it is. In fact, there are stories of Canadian soldiers being shocked and surprised that Afghanistan was cold in the winter. Afghanistan is a central-asian nation with almost no arabs or speakers of arabic yet I talk to people all the time who think it’s a middle eastern, arab nation.
What are the official languages of India? What nations border North Korea? What’s the capital of Chile? What’s the main religion in Indonesia? What languages are spoken in Spain?
These all seem like things we ought to know if we’re to be good global citizens. I’m pretty confident that my geographic knowledge is above average but when I actually test myself I still fall pathetically short. If you care about people regardless of their nationality, you’ll take the time to learn a little about where they live and what their lives are like. If nothing else, it will put your own circumstance in perspective. So to that end, here’s some fun suggestions on how to improve your knowledge of global geography:
1. Play country games. Try this: one person names a country and the other gets a point for naming the capital, naming a major language, or accurately describing the flag. It’s easy with France but gets tougher with places like Burma or Paraguay.
2. Learn to love google maps. When you are wondering about a country’s location or geography, go to google maps. It’s the most advanced geographic resource the human race has ever devised and it’s at your fingertips.
3. Use Wikipedia. When you hear about a distant country at war, read that country’s wikipedia page. You’ll learn about history, culture, language, geography, climate, and more in only a few minutes and the news will make more sense.
4. Embrace complexity. Not all muslims are arabs, not all Africans are dark skinned, not all dark skinned people live in Africa. Mexico was populated by first-nations people of Asian origins then populated by Spanish, German, and other ethnic groups. Why would Mexico be any less ethnically diverse than Canada or the USA? With race, religion, culture, and politics all in the mix, geography is very complex so don’t be simplistic.
Well I hope that through shaming I have inspired you to work a little harder to understand the world you live in. I believe that if you were lucky enough to have been born, and to be born into a rich, prosperous country with the information technology we have today, the least you can do is not be ignorant of your own circumstances. If you lived in Somalia, you might have an excuse for not knowing anything about the outside world but in Canada you have none.