Maps Are Un-American
Years ago, while subbing for Jay Diamond on his afternoon radio show in New York, I interviewed Steve Allen, comedian, Beat composer (as Patti Smith once dubbed him, referring to his collaborations with Jack Kerouac), and author of countless books about how America is going to hell and why everything is coming apart. During this particular segment, Allen spoke with visible annoyance about how stupid and uneducated young people were, and how it was getting worse. I agreed with him to a point, but for some reason he dragged in Howard Stern, who apparently had a hand in dumbing down American youth. Our discussion then became a debate about comedy and "bad taste," and we never really returned to the kids and why they don't know nuthin'.
I thought of the late Mr. Allen yesterday while reading a report in USA Today about "geographic illiteracy." According to a Roper poll of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24:
•One-third of respondents couldn't pinpoint Louisiana on a map and 48% were unable to locate Mississippi.
•Fewer than three in 10 think it important to know the locations of countries in the news and just 14% believe speaking another language is a necessary skill.
•Two-thirds didn't know that the earthquake that killed 70,000 people in October 2005 occurred in Pakistan.
•Six in 10 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East.
•While the outsourcing of jobs to India has been a major U.S. business story, 47% could not find the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia.
•While Israeli-Palestinian strife has been in the news for the entire lives of the respondents, 75% were unable to locate Israel on a map of the Middle East.
•Nearly three-quarters incorrectly named English as the most widely spoken native language.
•Six in 10 did not know the border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified in the world. Thirty percent thought the most heavily fortified border was between the United States and Mexico.
Surprised? Not me. There are a variety of reasons for this ignorance, of course (as USA Today recently reminded us, class and wealth play a part); and the poll findings help to explain why the US is in such lousy intellectual shape. But let's not dump all this blame on the young. I'm willing to bet that the majority of American adults are equally ignorant, if not more so. Mix in fundamentalist religion and you'll get a populace that not only is largely stupid about vital matters, but arrogantly proud of it. There are millions of exceptions, I know. There'd be utter chaos if there weren't. But tap into the mainstream American vibe and see what you find. Perhaps this was always so, and if that is indeed the case, then we're damn lucky to still be here -- or not, depending on your temperament.