Is Geography Still Relevant?

It seems people still cannot get enough of one of the most aired videos that surfaced over the summer on YouTube and MySpace. Stand-up comedians are milking the clip for as long as possible with their own take on Caitlin Upton’s unprecedented performance at the Miss Teen USA competition.

When any video receives over twenty million hits within less than 24 hours, it is safe to conclude its cast is either an animal playing an instrument, a beauty contestant falling flat on the derriere, or in this case, a teen Miss Carolina, while attempting to answer a question dispensed by the judges creates what appears to be the most egregious error in the history of beauty pageants.

The question – its intention to explore the possible causes of the alarming number of geographically challenged, young Americans – knocked Upton for six but not out of the competition. After the gaffe, witnessed by bewildered members of the audience, she was placed third runner up to the queen.

Her position in the top five is not only indicative of the calibre of the other contestants who placed behind her, it seems to also perpetuate the growing belief that lacking knowledge of geography is not so important. That the average American is inept of his surroundings is not news. Miss Teen simply affirmed what millions watching already heard, believed, or knew.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jamaica’s tourism industry was threatened by the outbreaks of riots in a remote area of the capital. The US thought this necessitated a travel warning on the entire island, instilling fear in Americans who refused to enter Jamaica. The Jamaica Tourist Board, in an attempt to evade the demise of the industry, employed a cunning marketing strategy that promoted Negril without the mention of Jamaica in the ads. The campaign’s success was manifested in the droves of American tourists who flocked Negril’s seven mile white sand beach, clueless the lazy resort town was located on Jamaica’s most western coast.

After working in the island’s tourism industry for several years, I became a raconteur with the ability to relay multitudes of examples of this ineptitude. I recall a chap from Long Island looked me square in the eyes and asked if the sea is salt. I cannot forget the couple from Queens who lodged a complaint to my superior, citing my ‘unwillingness’ to facilitate their dining plans.

Although I enlisted all the wit and clarity to explain the restaurant at which they wished to dine in the next half hour was located on another island called St. Lucia, they remained unconvinced. I further illustrated with a map why boarding an aircraft and traveling several hundred miles across the Caribbean Sea would be necessary, but they grew more annoyed. It appears the New York couple thought the Caribbean was one big island on which Turks and Caicos, Antigua, and St. Lucia are car rides away from Montego Bay.

From numerous conversations with American tourists, I conclude they believe the US is “where it’s at” and they do not see the benefit in occupying their hard drive with information about other, not so important countries. As a result, Americans display a significantly lower propensity for travel, when compared to Europeans, particularly Germans.

I regret to rain on the parade of those embarrassed US citizens who think the 18 year old’s mangled answer justifies her deportation to Canada to be schooled in this subject. While I am considered crown cartographer by for my awareness that Lesotho is completely land-locked by South Africa, the Altacama desert is the driest place on earth, and Indonesia comprises over 17, 000 islands, I do not represent Canada’s majority. Despite the work of the annual Geography Awareness Week – which first started in the US, under the Reagan Administration – recent IPSO-Reid surveys show a whopping 60% of born Canadians would fail the citizenship test which is dominated by questions about the country’s geography.

While some are still unable to be satiated with laughter triggered by Upton’s faux pas, others are engaged in a relevant, timely debate, also fuelled by her solecism. The crux of this debate not only seeks to unearth the answers to the question at which the contestant failed, but also to examine the extent to which geography is still a germane discipline in today’s society.

Chomsky’s nativist theory cites that human beings are equipped with a Language Acquisition Device which activates our ability to grasp imperative, linguistic skills, without which our communicative and survival acumen are significantly depressed. This inherent LAD, guiding our linguistic instincts does not have a Geography Acquisition Device or GAD counterpart. Consequently, any development of interest in how the world was formed or how to locate continents on a map requires tutoring.

In the same way school curricula infuse strategy to provoke children’s enthusiasm for language as a primary tool in their communications arsenal, encouraging their curiosity for geography should be underscored by creative instruction. The subject, equipped with an expansive and often technical argot often loses popularity among students in light of the mundane methods employed by educators to transfer this knowledge.

Throughout my high school years, many students who had even the slightest interest in honing their geography skills soon departed from their eagerness when the facilitator robbed the entire period explaining the formation of stalactites and stalagmites without the aid of animation. There is no limnologist in my family. I therefore passed the pop quiz on swash and backwash by virtue of my previous penchant for investigating the waters on my Saturday trips to an offshore island in my grandfather’s dinghy.

The formal education machinery is not the only institution that should shoulder this duty. Companies, particularly those that reap profit from this science, should include the ignition of geography awareness on their social responsibility agenda. The message of geography’s relevance to their every-day life and to their survival is a salient issue that corporate philanthropy may present upon creative platforms to young minds, ready to explore.

The relevance of myriad other disciplines is transitive owing to their inextricable link to geography. Primary principles in economics, philosophy, history, for example spill into and intermingle with those extolled by geography. As such, understanding this subject opens the door of appreciation for a gamut of socio-political instruments at play in world affairs.

If we understand plate tectonics, we are in a better position to understand the movements of peoples and why we are not so different. If we are able to locate Darfur on the map, chances are we will recognize the devastation of genocide and lift our voices to decibels that force our leaders to action in support of those afflicted. If we know enough about the Amazon, we would not remain silent while the Balbina Hydroelectric Dam exploits and threatens the ecological balance of the rain forest.

Perhaps blacksmithing is a trade that may be retired for its growing irrelevance to modern society. Conversely, the importance of having knowledge of geography is becoming progressively important as technology and other engines of change continue to reduce the planet to a village in which we are closer neighbours than we may want to accept.

Sharpening our knowledge of geography stands to sharpen our ethical compass, and in my plebeian opinion, that is a good thing.

Raquel Ingram is a writer and communication consultant in Toronto.

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