Omaha: The 51st State

by Dan Galemba | 11/7/01 6:00am

I feel it my duty as an American -- nay, a western American, one of the pop-saying variety -- to respond to recent comments in these very pages noting American ignorance of world geography. While I cannot argue that many people are pathetically inept when it comes to world geography, there is an issue much closer to home that needs to be addressed. After all, how can we expect others to know anything about world geography before they know anything about the United States? And I'm not talking about post office employees, who are slandered enough as it is, or your run-of-the-mill "Jaywalking" morons from "The Tonight Show," as the only perpetrators of geographical ignorance. I am talking about bona fide ivy league students who know nothing about America. Can't get much closer to home than that. Before we can even think about addressing American egocentricity in its ignorance of the rest of the world, we have to work on this very campus to solve the problems of ignorance of this wonderful land stretching from sea to shining sea. (And yes, contrary to popular opinion, the country does stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific, not just from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.)

Thus, without further ado, I drop everything else I'm working on and thinking about in order to address an issue plaguing this campus. Sometimes, in the midst of all the other little issues constantly draining all our time, energy and brainpower, we lose sight of concerns over the most basic knowledge. I feel it is my duty to implore each and every person on this campus to get out that atlas and learn your states!

And, indeed, this matter goes beyond just knowledge: it directly affects how accepting a community we have here. Ah, yes, "community," a word we can never get enough of, but what kind of community are we offering when we make so many people feel out of place by refusing to know anything about where they come from? My feelings have been hurt on countless occasions by ignorant peers callously referring to my home as "one of those square states." (I'm from Colorado, which, for purposes of clarification, is not a square but a rectangle.) I certainly do not feel I belong when those around me suggest that the state I call home may as well simply not exist for all they care to know about it.

Now, for shock value, I present some of the most gratuitous incidents of geographic ignorance I've come across -- all right here at Dartmouth. If I hear anyone make these mistakes again ... well, I just won't be held responsible for the consequences of my actions.

First: I distinctly remember my introduction to the land of ignorance (i.e. Dartmouth) during my freshman fall, a time during which I was naively under the assumption that everyone here was smart enough to have graduated fourth-grade geography class and open-minded enough to think that the country expands westward beyond the frontiers of Pennsylvania. My rude awakening came when a friend (to prevent embarrassment, everyone mentioned herein is a "friend," even though these friendships terminated upon my recognition of such intolerable ignorance) said, "So you're telling me that Omaha is a city and not a state?!" This was quickly followed by: "Is North Dakota or Nebraska the one that touches Canada?"

Second: I assumed that after a friend visited me in Colorado over freshman summer, she would have enough first-hand experience to locate it on an unlabelled map. Oh, how wrong I was. After pointing first to Wyoming, then to Kansas, then to Nebraska, she finally gave up, insisting she was close enough and, either way, it didn't matter.

Third: speaking of an unlabelled map, I thought I would have a little fun with a friend with a little pop quiz. To my chagrin, instead of having fun, I almost had a heart attack when she insisted that Missouri is indeed now Iowa and that Idaho is somewhere in the vicinity of Illinois or Indiana. Hey, what's the difference, they all start with an I, don't they?

Fourth, and lastly, because I think you get the idea: as if that last example weren't bad enough, I took the unlabelled map to yet another friend and asked her to identify states west of the Mississippi. We went one by one, and -- I am absolutely serious -- the only ones she knew were Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington and Texas. By the end of this ordeal I was actually impressed that she had even known that much. I really should not have to feel impressed when someone is able to locate Oregon on a map, yet there I was, so disillusioned was I. I think such a state of affairs speaks for itself.

Well, I don't want to have to settle anymore. I don't want to accept geographical ignorance as simply a given trait of so many Ivy League students. Something has to be done about it. So be prepared: I'm going to be carrying around a map, and I may give you a pop quiz at any moment.