Friday, February 4, 2011

A Geographic Understanding

Though the continents do float once you get right down to it - that's what plate tectonics teaches us - they don't float in a vacuum, and neither do the countries that we've drawn on top of them. Nevertheless, the knowledge of what those countries are and how they interconnect seems to be depreciated in today's world. A recent study in the United Kingdom, covered by the Telegraph, indicates that British students are "spatially naive... not able to locate countries, key mountain ranges or other features with any degree of confidence."

I can already see the responses coming... responses like "who cares?" It seems to me that society does not frown on people being geographically unaware, that it's one of those subjects that's seen as faintly irrelevant in the modern world. So you can't point to Iraq or Afghanistan on a map... is that really a strike against you?

Yeah, I think it is. Because, as I said, countries don't float in a vacuum. They interconnect, they rub up against each other, and the nature of their interactions in the past echo into the present and help determine the shape of their modern interactions. A familiarity with how these puzzle pieces fit together and of the shape they make is absolutely necessary in order to place the modern world in context. Without context, it's all a bunch of flags flying over unfathomable places. Knowing where things are is a basic skill, but it's also one of the skills that the "prosthetic memory" of the internet won't help. Knowing where the labels correctly go is only the first step to actually understanding the world as it is.

A medieval T and O map, printed in 1472, illustrating the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Personally I've never had a problem in this respect. I'll freely admit that, again, I'm a bit of a freak in this respect: when I was young I read atlases for fun, and made lists of countries and their capitals to keep my skills sharp. But for many people, even this most basic aspect of geography is difficult to grasp; if my own experiences are anything to go on, I'd imagine it's because many people did not have it taught to them well. It's the sort of subject that's easy for a student to dismiss as irrelevant.

But it's necessary, too - otherwise, you're a stranger in your own world.

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