Why Geography Needs to Come Back To American High Schools

“Can you name a country on this map?”

“Africa!”

“No, that is a continent.”

Americans’ geographic illiteracy trends on the internet as countless street interviews over the years continue to prove that Americans, we who hold cultural diversity and global unity at the pride of our identity, still mistake our neighbor Mexico for India on a map.

Moreover, as former vice president Dan Quayle authors the famous quote, “I love California, I practically grew up in Phoenix,” America’s geographic illiteracy has extended to our own map at home and caused many embarrassing mistakes to be remembered in world politics. With this, it should be no surprise that only 20 states in the United States require geography for graduation — and this number has to grow, for a future of effective higher education and a peaceful democracy.

Using Glen A. Wilson High School (GAWHS), one of Hacienda La Puente Unified School District’s (HLPUSD) National Blue Ribbon Schools as an example, many of our nation’s best high schools like GAWHS offer an array of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in the social sciences, ranging from AP World History, AP United States (US) History, to AP US Government and Politics. However, without a pre-AP social studies course open to freshmen students, GAWHS students jump into the vigor of college-level AP social science courses in their sophomore year with only the bare bits of prior knowledge from middle school social science (whose curriculum also often excludes geography instruction).

Lacking an appropriate foundation in geography, many students struggle to understand the complex historical and political events presented in college-level AP courses. For example, if a student was taught about the Cold War in AP World History, a student with basic knowledge of geography would observe that countries such as China, North Korea, and the Eastern Bloc were the first ones to be influenced by Soviet communism because they were in physical proximity to the Soviet Union, making them desirable options for Soviet support in exchange for a geographic buffer against capitalist influences; In contrast, students without this basic geographic knowledge would have to memorize all of the above to exceed in an exam instead of easily drawing this connection, simply based on the geographic reasoning behind this historical pattern. 

Elaborating on this, GAWHS Alumna Amber Lau explains her perspective on the importance of geographic knowledge in her success in AP World History and AP US History.

“I think geography should be a pre-AP history course [because] AP courses cover the history of the world or a certain country so you have to know exactly which country is being discussed,” Lau said. “Otherwise, you will get history wrong since each country, region, civilization’s history is shaped by its unique geography, so one needs to know the geography of the world in order to discuss history. And knowing geography helped me a lot in both AP World History and AP US History.”

Since students are unable to locate the geographic location of the historical or political concepts being taught, students are unable to digest the concepts in connection to the geographic causes and effects; instead, they resort to rote-memorization to pass exams for credit — defeating the purpose of college-level high school courses, which were designed to encourage application-based learning beyond a teaching-to-test education.

Furthermore, looking outside of the classroom, basic knowledge of geography remains important in our future amidst rapid globalization, providing the basis for informed citizenry as the United States become increasingly involved in major global conflicts in recent years: According to Data Reporter Matthew Kendrick at Morning Consult Pro, as President Biden announces an additional 800 million dollars in aid to Ukraine in the Russo-Ukrainian War in spring 2022, only 34 percent of Americans can locate Ukraine on a map.

Drawing from the speech of Sean Cheng, a top-10 contestant in the 2018 National Geographic Bee, “when we do not know where Ukraine is, we lack the key geographic knowledge to make informed decisions.”

Without the sufficient knowledge of the geographic conditions of a given situation, American voters can only rely on given media narratives to inform their stance on crucial global events before taking a vote at the ballot box, leaving our democracy susceptible to media manipulation and polarization.

Now as America once again stands in the center of violent protests and attacks over the recent Israel-Hamas War much like the previous wave of anti-Russian sentiment during the beginning of the Russo-Ukraine War, the future of a peaceful American democracy is locked in our ability to form informed, logical stances apart from the polarized opinions of media. And frankly, the key to this lock lies in a foundation in basic knowledge such as Geography — taking American civic education beyond rote memorization and nurturing a generation of Americans who will participate in our democracy with independent knowledge, logic, and reasoning.

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