Thursday, February 21, 2008

Geographically challenged

Google "Europe country" tonight and the first link you’ll see points to an inspiring, all-American, YouTube clip.

The clip, if you don't follow the link, is to the Kellie Pickler video so popular Prague taxi drivers are talking about it. The same guys who quizzed me last week about the contest between Obama and Clinton are now asking, "Is it possibly true about this girl? This 'Europe is a country' girl? Are Americans this dumb?"

Such a good question. My short answer, when I quit blushing and start thinking about it, is no. First, and I always mention this first when responding to generalizations, because my European friends (and taxi drivers) perhaps forget this or have a hard time grasping it without having experienced it themselves: the U.S. is a giant country. There are lots and lots of people there, 301 million and counting. Making a generalization about a country that big based on one person is about as silly as getting a continent confused with a country. After all, the kid on the show knew the answer, and who talks about him? Her audience, both on the set and across the U.S., was just as ready to laugh at Kellie as the world now seems to be. I don’t buy the sudden worry that we have a national deficit in gray matter.

And besides, not knowing geography isn’t about stupidity, but about ignorance and lack of experience. It's easy for me to remember the capitals of Europe and untangle the Balkans on a map - I have the stamps in my passport to remind me. Most Americans won’t ever leave the U.S. even once*; in a country the size of the Czech Republic (the size of South Carolina), people cross the border on a Saturday morning to do a little grocery shopping. Europeans have more time, too, to take vacations and actually travel. Four weeks of vacation a year and at least 8 public holidays gives people time to see the grandparents and venture beyond their usual haunts. Some of my friends in the States get 10 days off, total. Ten days is not a lot of time to see the world.

So, while I do admit to feeling intense chagrin when I saw the clip last weekend, and I must also admit to spending an hour (or two) on the internet, brushing up on Middle Eastern and African countries, if you were to ask me today about Americans and geography - I would confess to "Not stupid - but challenged, and here's why." Then I might ask you to reel off the countries bordering the UAE, and for bonus points, please list the 7 emirates themselves.

*From 1996 to 2006, the U.S. government issued 85 million passports. Passports for adults expire in a ten year period, passports for kids in five years, so I assume that up until 2006, less than 30% of the population had a passport.

2 comments:

jessmonster said...

I see the "Europe is a country" thing happen all the time at my non-library job - I deal with paperwork for international shipments, and I regularly see things like "The Netherlands" in the "state" box and "Europe" in the country box. It's sad/funny. But, I was kind of a geography nerd in middle school, so even though I've forgotten a lot since then, I do love to look at maps and know where things are.

Julia said...

I wonder if people think they have to fill in all the fields...hm.

Then again, I suspect I'm just over estimating the information people hold onto from school ;-).