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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Changes in Latitudes...

Those 1490s ... talk about a great decade. The Moors surrendered after the long Reconquista, the Swiss won their independence and the Portuguese set out to establish an empire. Now, they were a people who knew their maps. Mapmaking schools sprouted across the nation, and their prince even earned the title "the Navigator." Simply put, cartography was cool. Unfortunately, the fad passed before it could begin a craze in modern America. As I'm sure many of my geographically-literate comrades agree, it's a challenge to have a conversation with someone who can't even locate Egypt on a globe.

While some would characterize such lack of knowledge as a mere peeve, I'm worried it may be part of a broader problem. In fact, I would argue that America's lack of geographic knowledge has facilitated our ignorance of world affairs inside and out of this "Dartmouth Bubble." How can we even begin to consider other beliefs when we don't even know where the people who hold them live? Or, for President Bush, how are we to know where to bomb when we don't even know where the target nation is? Counter-intuitively, knowledge of this planet's political boundaries has become less prevalent despite the forces of the rapidly globalizing world around us.

For example, many seem perplexed by Iran's violent paranoia. I don't mean to argue that this is the only reason why Iran is so belligerent, but looking at a map of the region is a start. Iran is currently boxed between the nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east and Iraq on the west, all of which are either occupied by or sympathetic to the United States. Additionally, looking toward the northwest one finds Azerbaijan and a bit further Georgia, nations with whom we are pursuing new military agreements. From an Iranian perspective, any American attack could evolve into a war on countless fronts, and no amount of radical preaching will remedy that. It would appear as though containment is as effective against the theocrats as it was against the communists. Certainly, this unobserved geographic link is not exclusive to the Iranian conflict. I bet the Israelis would have a much easier time if they weren't trapped between salt water and Middle Eastern nations with either unfriendly governments or vociferously violent civilian minorities.

The tragedy is that a large number of Americans don't even know where these places are. In an attempt to convince myself that I was just being paranoid, and that geography was actually a well known subject, I blitzed a simple quiz to people I knew at Dartmouth and "abroad" at other colleges. It merely asked them to identify 42 European nations on a blank, numbered map. I added a trick and numbered Russian Kaliningrad as well, believing people would know what that is. I was wrong.

The results were disappointing. Out of 43 the scores ranged from 10 to 37, and remarkably followed a bell-shaped distribution pattern despite my limited data pool (yes, I had a great deal of time on my hands). Of course, Dartmouth students made up the left side of the graph, sporting an admiral average of 13. Highlights among these responses include a confusion between Slovenia and Greece, as well as one person's strange notion that Austria, France and Poland were all Germany at the same time, while Germany itself was "?". Sadly, the Dartmouth scores were almost uniformly lower than those achieved by students at other colleges. Dartmouth did, however, manage to score higher than my little brother, who is in eighth grade. Congratulations on your achievement.

The fact that even European countries elude us is especially worrisome because the European Union is the hallmark of regionalism, a growing philosophy in the world. EU diplomats must necessarily take geography into consideration as the organization takes steps toward further integration, and so far the effort seems to be paying off, if the exchange rate between the euro and dollar is any indication.

The worst part is that such ignorance is easily remedied. Why not spend a half-hour surfing Wikipedia or just looking at a map of the world we live on instead of checking your Facebook or reading opinions instead of writing that essay? Becoming educated isn't going to bring about world peace, but it's the first step toward understanding the world beyond Main Street and the occasional Boston expedition.

For that matter, do we even know where Boston is in the United States?