How Much Do You Know?

by Anil Antony | 11/6/01 6:00am

Geographic ineptness is ravaging the country. This trend is an offshoot of Americentrism, the theory that we're great and the rest of the world can kiss our asses. The average American's knowledge of the world's geography extends only to a few main, let's call them, "countries": the United States, Mexico, Canada, South America, China, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Europe, Asia, India and Down Under.

This is a weakness that has been exposed on a number of occasions ranging from presidential gaffes -- "Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease" -- to routines for late night talk show hosts. Jay Leno enjoys catching people on tape saying that Boston is the capital of the United States, or that there are 48 or 51 or 45 states in the Union. On one occasion, I was delighted to discover that New York borders Florida. That will definitely make my summer travel plans much easier. Mistakes like these have become more and more commonplace, startlingly so. Some are excusable, others are not. "Where's Dartmouth?" is a legitimate question. "So, you go to school in New Hampshire, huh? Do you ever go to Seattle on the weekends?" is not.

A co-worker of mine this summer, while trying to place a call to Cameroon, contacted one of the large phone service providers to inquire about Cameroon's international phone code.

"Hi, I'm trying to place a call to Cameroon. Can you tell me the phone code?"

"Sure, hold on a second Cameroon? That's in Africa, right?"

"Yeah, it's in west Africa."

"Ok, let me look that up. Hmmm nope, I can't find it."

"Well, ma'am, I assure you, it does exist."

"Cameroon is the city, right? I can't find any city by that listing."

"Actually, Cameroon is a country. I'm trying to find the international calling code. Is there someone else I can talk to?"

"Well, you've called the right place. I still can't find any city called Cameroon. Africa is the country, right?"

I had an equally enlightening experience at a post office where a friend and I were trying to mail a package to Norway. Upon inquiring how much it would cost to ship this package to Norway we were told that a package of that weight would cost $48.15, although the lady behind the counter, Hi My Name is Shareena, warned us that the final price would be higher by a few dollars.

"Why is that?" I asked, always the pinchpenny.

"Well, you haven't taped the package yet. The tape will add some weight."

"Really? I didn't know that tape weighed so much." All these things I had been taking for granted. I never even considered how much tape weighs.

"You'd be surprised," she said, nodding sagely.

So, we stingily applied tape to avoid the exponentially mounting costs and returned to the window to ship the package. What happened next really frightened me, and has caused me to lose all the confidence I once had in the United States Postal Service. But hey, at least she asked

"Norway that's in Great Britain, right?"

But before either of us had a chance to respond, a bearded postal lady, Lawanda, chipped in from the background.

"No, Norway's in the Netherlands. You know, Holland," thereby demonstrating her extensive knowledge of both geography and nomenclature.

I wasn't sure whether to smile or cry or slap these silly women, so I paid the ladies and escaped before I was sucked into their black hole of ignorance. The final cost of the package was $48.20. Oh, the unbearable cost of that tape.

Now, these are isolated examples; just individuals who have been failed by the education system, right? It turns out that such ignorance is more systemic than I had previously thought. A few months ago I found myself at a large theme park in line for a simulator ride called Dino Island.

When the ride started, a voice informed us that Dino Island is in a previously unexplored part of the South Pacific. Then, a map flashed on the screen in front of us and I noticed to my surprise that Dino Island was not, as was previously indicated, in the South Pacific. It was in the Indian Ocean, closer to the Atlantic Ocean than the Pacific, actually.

Of more surprise to me was the realization that the country I had formerly thought was Madagascar was now known as Dino Island. I can't believe that none of my geography teachers had ever bothered to mention this apparently little known fact. I've always been under the impression that Madagascar had been discovered and colonized, not by creatures from the Jurassic, but by humans and lemurs. Maybe I'm the one who needs to relearn geography. After all, it's not likely that a company as large as Six Flags (oops I named them) could make such a careless mistake, right?