Friday, November 20, 2009

Do You Know Where You Are?

It’s Geography Awareness Week and to celebrate, National Geographic has invited all 100 U.S. Senators to draw a map of their home state from memory. The contest was inspired by Senator Al Franken’s performance at the Minnesota State Fair, where he drew the entire map of the U.S. freehand. So far, Senators of only 11 states have risen to the challenge.

Which is really too bad, since Geography is in serious need of awareness in this country.

The 1987 Joint Resolution establishing Geography Awareness Week reported that “20 percent of American elementary school students asked to locate the United States on a world map placed it in Brazil” and “95 percent of American college freshmen tested could not locate Vietnam on a world map …”

The continuing trend of geographic illiteracy was confirmed in 2002, when Americans age 18-24 scored second to last of nine countries in a National Geographic/Roper survey. That’s when it was revealed that 11% of U.S. citizens interviewed couldn't locate the U.S. on a map and almost a third couldn’t identify the Pacific Ocean.

The most recent survey, in 2006, reported that “… results show cause for concern.  Six in ten (63%) cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, despite near-constant news coverage since the U.S. invasion of March 2003.

Senator Franken's impressive freehand map-drawing skills, got me thinking about the gorgeous antique globes covered in slate like this one at the Paris Hotel Boutique. These late 19th –early 20th century classroom fixtures were used to teach geography and geometry. I came across a brochure from globe producer, A.J. Nystrom & Co. of Chicago, and here’s how they described the product’s value.
Most phases of Geography and Spherical Geometry may be presented more clearly, and their truths more permanently impressed in the pupils’ minds with the aid of a slated globe. The actual use of the chalk or slate pencil by pupils on the globe takes advantage of the strong memory value of muscular action.

To be sure, the “memory value of muscular action” is something we’ll never get from Google Maps or from an iPhone app. Which makes me think that maybe what’s really needed in this country to get back to Geographic Awareness, is a clean slate.

Here’s a DIY version using chalkboard paint.

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