Don't know much about geography

Peter Jackson
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Immanuel Kant said space is all in our minds. The 18th-century philosopher argued that perception of spatial reality relies on our own intuitive construct.

George Berkeley argued the world only exists inasmuch as we perceive it, rather than the other way around. In response, Samuel Johnson kicked a large rock and exclaimed, "I refute it thus." A painful but effective point.

Whether it's all in our minds or not, some people don't seem to pay much attention to this big, old world of ours - particularly that beyond their own vanishing point.

Last week, the local airwaves were awash with soul-searching commentary about our citizens' geographical prowess - or lack thereof. It stemmed from a CBC report about a MUN professor, Judith Adler, who discovered many of her students had little to no ability to pinpoint continents and oceans on a map, let alone specific countries. A random survey around campus confirmed the same.

It was shocking stuff. One student couldn't even point to the Atlantic Ocean. Another had been to Spain, but had no idea where it was.

Eventually, a sense of calm set in. Heather Barrett of CBC posted an opinion piece noting that unlike the rest of us newshounds, the average citizen is not always that interested in the world beyond his or her nose.

Still, I find it odd that anyone can live in such a bubble.

I, for example, have an acute sense of orientation. That doesn't mean I always know where I am or which direction is east or west. It just means I am never comfortable unless I at least think I know.

Take Times Square. I've been there many times, but only recently realized I had it backwards all along. What I thought was the north end is actually south, and vice versa. This would not bother most people. To me, it was agonizing.

When I wake up in a new place, I need to know my bearings. It's easy if you're next to the sea or the mountains. With no landmarks, you have to guess, or ask someone.

I obsess over maps. When my wife and I travel, I cling to the map greedily, face and eyes buried in it as the actual landscape passes by outside the window. These days, I can even follow the little blue dot on my iPad.

"That's us, and we're here!" I'd say, paying little attention to the actual "here" beyond the windshield.

Is geography a lost art? Well, I wouldn't sound its death knell just yet.

The age of electronics has changed life immensely in many ways. It has eliminated the need to apply effort to many common tasks. No one has to do math in his head anymore, and you only need to fire up Google to find that perfect quote from Shakespeare.

It's the same with geography. Want to know where Timbuktu is? Just punch it into Google Earth and before you know it, you're vaulting across the Atlantic and descending into Mali. Visiting a long-lost cousin in New Mexico? Your GPS will make sure you don't take a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

In other words, there's no need for points of reference.

Yes, you can blame educators for some of this malaise - not the down-to-earth ones, but the new-age coddlers who frown on old-fashioned tenets of learning. For them, the term "rote" is a four-letter word. Students no longer have to drill multiplication tables, spelling or grammar, or find countries on a map. Modern teaching techniques mimic osmosis: give the dear ones some creative leeway and let them discover the rules for themselves.

Except children aren't plants. They don't absorb rules the way roots absorb water. In fact, they're more inclined to ignore them.

We need to bring back some of the rigour of bygone days. Test kids on their knowledge of maps, and reinforce it throughout their school years.

Otherwise, not only will children be left behind, but they won't be able to find their way back.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. Email:

Organizations: CBC, MUN, Google

Geographic location: Atlantic Ocean, Spain, Mali New Mexico Albuquerque

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Recent comments

  • Listen I tells ya
    January 23, 2013 - 09:48

    The government wants our kids to be to stupid to realize the give away of muskratfalls.