Geography has made us neighbors: the importance of geographic literacy in the 21st century

Geographic literacy matters for conflict resolution professionals, high-level negotiators, and globe-trotting tourists alikeIt is now axiomatic that the world has become in many ways a smaller place. Technological advances, the internet, the ease of intercontinental travel, the rapid dissemination of information and culture through media, and global economic interdependence have all worked to bind us more closely together.

Cultural awareness is critical—whether we are international negotiators or simply tourists. But it’s not just cultural literacy that matters in a multicultural world. To become responsible global citizens, we need to be geographically literate.

Geography is the starting point for our understanding of the world around us. Through geography we can make sense of the impact of current events that affect the international community. Geography, too, helps us map the landscape of conflict. Disputes over resources and borders, political instability, terrorism, climate change, natural disasters—these have international repercussions. Whether it’s violence in the Middle East or the latest outbreak of avian flu, geographic literacy matters.

Speaking of geography, there’s ample evidence that here in the U.S., Americans may be geographically challenged. There’s the infamous 2002 National Geographic survey revealing how lamentably little young Americans know of world geography: 11 percent of American responding to the survey couldn’t even place the U.S. on a world map, and fewer than 15 percent could locate Iraq or Israel.

(However, just to put this all in perspective, the survey revealed that geographic illiteracy is a worldwide phenomenon. Although Americans scored second from the bottom in final survey scores, respondents struggled overall with many of the survey questions.) To take the test yourself, click here.

Although Americans’ grasp of geography may be shaky, there’s always the chance for us to redeem ourselves by testing ourselves on our knowledge of U.S. geography. Click here for a drop-and-drag test on your knowledge of the geographical location of the 50 states on a map of the U.S. (Thanks to sharp-eyed Bob Kraft and his law blog P.I.S.S.D. [Personal Injury, Social Security Disability] for that link.)

Looking beyond to the world at large, visit, an incredible resource for statistical comparisons of data compiled on the nations of the world. You can take a look at top statistics (which nations are the richest? most corrupt? most trigger-happy?) or search categories ranging from agriculture to energy to lifestyle to education.

You can also broaden your horizons with, which provides facts and figures on every country on the planet through an interactive world map. It even has a currency converter for those of you making international travel plans.

Curious to know what time it is anywhere in the world? Before you pick up the phone in Vancouver to call your old college roommate in Nairobi, visit

Finally, if you want to test your cultural literacy instead of your geographic literacy, try your hand at these cultural awareness tests (answers here—but no peeking). And Bill Warters at Campus-ADR Tech Blog has a cool link to this quiz on cross-cultural negotiation.

2 responses to “Geography has made us neighbors: the importance of geographic literacy in the 21st century

  1. Mobile Phones

    This is by no means an insult to Americans, only a story to illustrate the point of how bad this can get.A friend of mine from South Africa toured the states with his band many years ago, and were staying at various people’s houses who were glad to host them. One family took them in, and the father of the family was a qualified Chartered Accountant.After some conversation, this CA turned to my friend and asked him an embarrassing question. He asked him how long it took them to ‘drive’ from South Africa to the States.For some reason, he thought South Africa was a drivable distance away from America? And this a qualified Chartered Accountant! Needless to say, my friend was a little perplexed and tried his best to answer the question without insulting him… which, you may agree, was incredibly difficult…

  2. Mobile Phones

    There’s an interesting article there at about debunking some of the Western myths and preconceptions of the third world. Because I stay in a ‘third world’ country, I do find it interesting how many people in the first world don’t understand what is going on in the rest of the world. Here, in South Africa, we have a notable third world mixed with pockets of first world. But there is a huge amount of development going on.Admittedly, I saw photo’s and video clips of friends that went to Eastern Europe and Egypt the other day and it is also almost mind blowing for me to see how well developed some of these countries are. TV has probably given us the wrong conceptions of what the world looks like…