Ukraine the Great White North? The Implications of Poor Geography

Only 16 percent of Americans can find Ukraine on a map. This is the embarrassing conclusion of a survey published by three Ivy League professors in the Washington Post earlier this month.

The survey’s 2,066 respondents were asked to plot Ukraine on a digital map (accessible here), and the results may make you laugh—or cringe.

Most people placed their dot in Europe or Asia, but the median respondent missed Ukraine by a whopping 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers). Guesses were scattered across the globe, with many in Africa, Greenland, or Canada.

What makes the survey particularly scary is the correlation that emerged when respondents were asked about their foreign policy attitudes. The farther away from Ukraine the respondents plotted on the map, the more they wanted the US military to intervene in Ukraine.

In other words, the poorer a person’s geographic literacy, the more aggressive the person’s foreign policy stance.

The Ukraine survey is consistent with other studies exposing how badly Americans fare when asked to identify places on a map. A 2006 study commissioned by the National Geographic Society showed that only 37 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East. Only 12 percent could find Afghanistan on a map of Asia. These are not obscure places, but countries in which the US has had lengthy involvement.

How did Americans become so geographically illiterate? Some point to the inward-looking nature of American culture. Others see the problem rooted in a lack of emphasis and funding for geography education. It’s possible that an American student can go through the entire education system from kindergarten through university and never take a geography class, says geographer Harm de Blij, author of Why Geography Matters.

And what are the costs? According to de Blij, a lack of geography education has reduced our environmental awareness, eroded our international outlook, and placed US businesspeople and politicians at a major disadvantage in an interconnected and globally competitive world.

The problem extends beyond business and political leaders, of course. A lack of geographic awareness creates a citizenry poorly equipped to voice an informed opinion on foreign policy issues.

We can’t expect all US citizens to master every nuance of international relations. But just knowing the general neighborhood of a country (that Ukraine is in Europe, not Canada) makes a person less likely to believe that military force advances US security interests.

Even a little geographic knowledge would be a less dangerous thing.