THE TRIVIA LOVER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD
By GARY FULLER
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2012 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE EFFECTS OF GEOGRAPHIC IGNORANCE ON THE MODERN WORLD
Question 1: Where Is New Zealand?
Pat Sajak of television's Wheel of Fortune seems about as unflappable as a game show host can get. With thousands of shows under his belt, what could possibly happen that was new? The category on the show one evening was "Where are you?" The puzzle consisted of three words that described a place, and there was a $1,000 bonus for naming the place once the puzzle was solved. A contestant solved the puzzle with minimal difficulty. The three words were: pineapple, aloha, lei. After some hesitation, the contestant offered "Idaho" as the answer. There was applause in the audience from those who apparently thought pineapples were a principal crop just outside Boise, but Pat Sajak was momentarily speechless! By the way, if you happen to be lost geographically, the correct answer was "Hawai'i."
Every television quiz show in the United States reveals the same thing: geographic ignorance is widespread. On Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, viewers can watch brilliant people answer obscure questions but then wash out when they confuse Switzerland and Sweden or think the Nile River is in Asia. This situation wouldn't be so bad except geography is pretty important stuff. It helps us understand how the world is organized—how history, politics, economics, climate, and culture coalesce in specific places. Just as music has a very basic vocabulary of notes, so geography's vocabulary is made up of places. Without those places, it's hard to understand religion and language and much of anything else that makes our world what it is. Most of the literature we enjoy—from the classics to modern pulp fiction—is enriched by a basic understanding of the places where the stories are set.
If geographic ignorance were limited to game shows, there would be no need for this book. Unfortunately, it's sometimes where you'd least expect it. A few years ago I was privileged to attend a meeting of State Department personnel. People chosen for State Department positions are highly educated, often from the best colleges and universities, but sometimes lack basic geographic information and understanding. During a lull in the proceedings, an informal discussion began about unusual languages. A number of interesting languages were mentioned, as one would expect from the collective knowledge at the table. Eventually they turned to me, as an outsider and the only geographer. I nominated Bislama, the pidgin language of Vanuatu. I told them the language developed as a result of the sea slug trade between the French and the Chinese and that the name of the language actually came from the French beche de mer, the sea slug itself. Hours later, after the meeting concluded, several participants congratulated me on my imaginative language story. Apparently nobody believed me; they assumed even the country Vanuatu had been made up. I couldn't convince them otherwise.
So what? Who cares about Vanuatu? Despite its collective talent, the US government has an alarming history of knowing next to nothing about areas it considers unimportant and then, oops, they become really important. Places such as Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan seem like good examples, but in the past places such as Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Tarawa, and, yes, the New Hebrides, or Vanuatu, also come to mind. Ever since the world first shrunk dramatically in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal, we've seen places grow ever closer and ever more important to each other ... and to us. So, yes, Vanuatu is important both to us and to the people that make it their home, even if the folks who work at FOGGY BOTTOM are unaware of it.
The most alarming place for geographic ignorance, however, is the college classroom. Geography is rarely taught in our primary and secondary schools. Sure, there are localized exceptions, the occasional school or teacher trying to offer a little geography. Without an organized curriculum and an understanding of major concepts, however, teachers usually offer little more than an exercise in pointless memorization. The average freshman college student is among the most geographically lost of all. When I was teaching introductory geography at Penn State, Ohio State, and the University of Hawai'i, I would occasionally ask students to locate the country of New Zealand on an outline map of the world, one that showed national boundaries but not the names of countries or other places. There wasn't a corner of the world that failed to be labeled "New Zealand." Answer 1: Fewer than 15 percent of the students could find it (in the southwestern Pacific Ocean east of Australia), and a small number even located it in the space reserved for the United States. It's fortunate that we're reasonably good friends with New Zealand, because I doubt we could find it if we decided to take military action against it.
Knowing the location of New Zealand is simply a vocabulary matter, like knowing what bailiwick means or where middle C is on the piano keyboard. It's not high-order knowledge, but you have to start somewhere!
I think colleges and universities could help the situation a bit by not describing their locations to the students they accept. Imagine how panicked students would be if they were ready to leave for college and didn't know where to go. Where is Reed or Trinity, Arizona or TCU? Is there a city called William and Mary or Howard? Worst of all, is PENN STATE in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, or maybe Harrisburg? What fun to have college admissions based on geographical Darwinism!
Excerpted from THE TRIVIA LOVER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD by GARY FULLER Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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