Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The price of geographic ignorance

It's finals week at Eastern Kentucky University. The students in my Geology 108, Plate Tectonics intro geology class are spread out at long tables, pouring the sum of all knowledge onto their exams.

This is an introductory, general education class.Most students are sophomores or juniors-- majors in criminal justice, nursing, fire control, or other fields not remotely concerned with continental collisions or divergent margins. So I've tried to impart life-skills, or at least tidbits of geologic information that will be interesting or  even useful in the future. Rather than memorizing Bowen's Reaction Series, we've emphasized earthquakes, especially the recent tragic events in Nepal, including emails from a Tibetan friend who lives there and is very very frightened. We've considered places they might wish to travel to. The history of the Appalachian Mountains. The threats of the nearby New Madrid Fault Zone. Fukushima. Krakatoa. Cascade Volcanoes. Yellowstone. Hawaii. Iceland.

And with every subject, we've looked at maps of these exotic places.  Or at least, I thought we had looked at maps.

Their final exam included a list of ten locations that we had studied. Nepal, the Himalayas, The Cascades, Andes, Japan, Krakatoa, Iceland, Yellowstone, San Andreas, and the New Madrid fault zone. They had to state its geological significance. And locate it on a World Map.

Yellowstone is evidently on the East Coast, probably in South Carolina. Iceland is that big continent-thing west of New Zealand.  Nepal is just south of Tokyo.  Or north of Italy.

Some people who I shared these "maps" with thought they were funny.

They are not. To consider it unnecessary to know anything about world geography, or to consider such ignorance amusing, is be co-dependant with a most unattractive American hubris.

Admittedly, not every student made such egregious errors. Some nailed all the locations. But far too many displayed a cavalier ignorance of domestic and global geography.

This willful ignorance of other places arrives at college with them -- as much a part of their baggage as sneakers, cell-phones and high-school memorabilia. It was as true (though to a lesser extent) at the high-achieving, high-priced private college I taught at previously, as it is at Eastern Kentucky University-- a school whose students come from some of the most impoverished counties in the U.S. And we are complicit in student know-nothing attitudes. College may provide remedial writing and remedial math. But there is no remedial geography.

There should be.

Knowing geography is a matter of national security. Of food security. It evidently matters little to many students that thousands of people are killed in earthquakes halfway around the Earth. But perhaps it would be helpful to know where Cuba is, or North Korea. To know where California's drought-stricken vegetable farms are. Or how much of Kansas (Is that near Florida?) and its wheat fields the XL pipeline might besot with crude. Visualizing where things are globally also provides a sense of how diverse our planet is. How distant or near our kin might be. And how events elsewhere might impact us.It informs both humanitarian and political decisions.  Can an electorate -- or worse, a legislature--that thinks Nepal is just south of Germany, and Iceland is west of New Zealand, which it also thinks is Japan,  make wise decisions about global trade, environmental, and military/security  issues?

The personal pride in knowing things has abdicated to  the smartphone and the internet. Want to know where Nepal is? Google it. Or just ask Siri. Want to know how to write a correct reference for a paper? Scan the barcode of the book, and voile, it's there on your tablet.  No need to clutter your brain with knowledge of how to do anything. We should engage these tools in the classroom. But our mind is our greatest tool; using our brains is what made us human in the first place.

As I told the student who boasted that she didn't need to know anything about references anymore because her smartphone could write them all correctly, someday we will just have a scanner implanted in our finger, a lens set into our eye, and a chip in our brain, and we won't have to know anything.  I give us until about 2050 for this to actually happen.

That will, in my Neanderthal view (6% genetically!), mark the beginning of the end for humanity, if not for humans. The world of Ex Machina looms. To be human, to be more than machine, we need to be connected viscerally to the planet and one another.  To know, when the smartphone buzzes a USGS large Earthquake notification,  whether this means a local or distant disaster, or no disaster at all if is is far from populations centers.  To know, when there is an oil spill, whether it is on our collective doorstep.  Is deforestation in Thailand anywhere close to the deforestation issue of Brazil? If sea level rise threatens Bangladesh, is that anywhere near Florida? Or Kansas?

The old "better parenting" public service announcement  adage used to motivate 1960s-1980's adults to  care better for their children-- "It's 10 o'clock, do you know where your children are?" can also be applied in a broader context-- not just for the care for our children, but care for the planet, and all humans and ecosystems on it.  "It's 2015. Do you know where anything is?"


Blogger Marilyn Dunstan said...

Nice article on the importance of geography!

May 14, 2015 at 2:51 PM  

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