When Americans' Ignorance of World Geography is Embarrassing

When my husband and I hosted high school exchange students, they told us about the repeated conversations they had with American students during the first few weeks of school:

American: "So you're an exchange student? That's awesome! Where are you from?" 

Exchange student: "I'm from Bolivia." [or Hungary, etc.]

American: "Really? That's awesome! So . . . where's Bolivia?" 

This conversation happens over and over each fall in American high schools, regardless of the exchange students' home country. Sometimes the American students tentatively guess the continent ("So . . . is that in South America?") but even more rarely are they sure of the country's location and its border countries.  The exchange students are always surprised by their American peers' ignorance of world geography


Unlike the exchange students, I'm not surprised. As a former French teacher in American and French schools, I'm aware that Americans' knowledge of global geography is generally lacking. I intentionally worked to improve my students' knowledge of the world and it's peoples--after all, French and English are the only languages that are officially used by at least one country on every populated continent.

Countries and regions in which French is an official language (blue) or is widely spoken and understood (green)

Countries and regions in which French is an official language (blue) or is widely spoken and understood (green)

My daughter will start kindergarten at home this fall, and just as I included social studies in my French lessons, I look forward to intentionally incorporating geography into her education. For now, my approach will be largely story-based, however. The late nineteenth-century British educator Charlotte Mason wrote that, for children under nine, geography should initially be taught through the reading aloud of interesting travelogues and stories involving travel (rather than expecting young children to memorize lists of countries and capitals that don't yet hold meaning for them).

My Road by  Michaël Garrigues

In the meantime, over the course of this school year, I hope to repair our globe stand, order this geography puzzle, buy a few yards of world map-printed fabric to recover our couch cushions, and continue planning our family's trip to France next summer.

Le paper globe by  Joachim Robert

Le paper globe by Joachim Robert

Have you read any good travel-related books with your children or students lately? (I'd love to hear your recommendations!) Do you think you had a good grasp of world geography by high school? Which was the first foreign country that truly intrigued you?

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