Six out of 10 young Americans cannot find Iraq on a map

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The Independent US

The US may be the world's only true superpower but global domination does not equal global knowledge. A new survey shows young Americans have what can only be described as shoddy geography skills, with six out of 10 unable to locate Iraq on a map and almost half incapable of pointing to the state of Mississippi.

Traditionally, the US has bowed to the idea of isolationism, hoping that geography in the form of vast oceans can help act as a protection from other nations. But the survey suggests that such an attitude- both culturally and in terms of interest in overseas travel - is having a woeful impact on Americans' ability to learn about the wider world.

The survey shows that, despite having invaded Iraq three years ago, six out of 10 Americans aged 18 to 24 cannot locate the country. Two-thirds do not know that the October 2005 earthquake that killed 70,000 people struck in Pakistan. Indeed, more than 40 per cent cannot locate Pakistan in Asia.

But it is not just overseas knowledge that is lacking. The survey shows that domestic geography is also poor. Despite the chaos caused by Hurricane Katrina, which killed hundreds of people and cost billions of dollars when it struck the Gulf Coast last August, one-third of those questioned were not able to find Louisiana on a map of the US. When asked to point on a map to a location that avoids hurricane strikes - ie, the north-west of the US - around a third pointed in the wrong direction.

"It's not good ... It shows the knowledge is pretty appalling," said John Fahey, president of the National Geographic Society, which commissioned the survey. "I think this is born out of a sense that [people believe] 'I can be isolated here - culturally and geographically. I don't need to think too much about what's happening in the rest of the world'."

He added: "Geographic illiteracy impacts our economic well-being, our relationships with other nations and the environment, and isolates us from our world. Geography is what helps us make sense of our world by showing the connections between people and places. Without it, our young people are not ready to face the challenges of the increasingly interconnected world of the 21st century."

The survey, carried out in December 2005, also found fewer than three in 10 think it is important to know the locations of countries in the news; only 14 per cent believe another language is a necessary skill; 47 per cent could not find India on a map and 75 per cent could not locate Israel.

While the geography skills of young Americans are unimpressive, however, they may be improving. A similar study carried out in 2002 found only 13 per cent could point to Iraq on a map. Almost one in 10 could not even point to the United States.

That survey also found that young people who have travelled abroad and speak another language are likely to have better geography skills than those who do not. Young adults who obtained international news from newspapers as opposed to television alone were likely to score better, as were respondents who regularly used the internet.

The National Geographic Society has released the results of the survey to coincide with a campaign to improve "geographic literacy". Entitled My Wonderful World, and led by a group of business, non-profit and education leaders, the aim is to highlight ways that children and parents can help build geography skills.

Central to the campaign is a website at which contains suggestions for outdoor family activities, links to geography games and classroom materials.