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Why geography is important

BY LARRY PEABODY
In his book “Fundamentals of World Regional Geography” (Thomson Brooks/Cole, 2007), author Joseph J. Hobbs cites a 2002 study commissioned by the National Geographic Society in which a population of United States citizens aged 18-24 was asked to locate on maps many of the most important places in their lives and in the news.
Eleven percent of those surveyed could not locate the United States on a blank map of the world. Forty-nine percent could not find New York City, ground zero for the most spectacular of the 9/11 attacks. Eighty-three percent did not know where Afghanistan is, despite that country’s omnipresence in news of the war on terrorism. Eighty-seven percent did not know where to situate Iraq, which at the time was also prominent in the news as U.S. forces prepared to invade the country.
The National Geographic Society survey also tested the geographic awareness of 18- to 24-year-olds from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and Great Britain. The Americans came in next to last, above only the youth of Mexico. (Sweden, incidentally, was No. one, followed by Germany and Italy.)
Some of you reading this article are in that group of 18- to 24-year-old Americans, or soon will be. The dismal findings related above are not meant to embarrass you or confront you with how little you may know about the world. Instead, they pose a challenge to you to learn about our world, especially the cultures and lifestyles of the people that inhabit our planet’s countries and regions.
Geography is not just about learning the capital of France (Paris) or Singapore (which, by the way, is Singapore since it is a citystate, one of a handful world-wide). Geography is learning — and knowing — about languages, dress, climate and weather, topography, religion and politics, and most importantly, the history and background of a country and their inhabitants.
Recent scientific breakthroughs in high-speed transportation and communications have shrunk our world tremendously. Where once it would take months, perhaps years, to reach a remote spot on the globe can now be accessed in a matter of hours or days. With the advent of satellite and Internet communications, that time has shrunk to a matter of seconds.
So what is all this leading to, you ask? Simply this: Now is the time to learn about our world and its peoples, not later.
Final questions! Can you locate the U.S. on a map? New York City? Afghanistan? Iraq? Do you know the capital of Afghanistan? Iraq? The United States? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, consider geography as an elective as you prepare for college.
What’s the difference between latitude and longitude? How many continents are there? How many oceans? Which one is the largest, area-wise, and deepest (and saltiest)? What’s the largest city in the world? What’s the longest river on Earth? Closer to home, what’s the longest river in the United States? (If you guessed the Mississippi, guess again). Measured from its base to its summit, what’s the tallest mountain? (Hint: it isn’t Mt. Everest). If you answered “I don’t know” to any of these questions, then you need to seriously consider brushing up on your geography knowledge.
In order to flourish in today’s world economy, no matter what business or career, you need to know the people of the country you’re competing against or conducting business with. Rest assured they know about you and your country. Just as in sports, knowledge of your opponent’s weaknesses and strengths can mean the difference between success and failure.
By the way, for you non-college-age OWAA members, if you’re cogitating a fishing trip to Baja, Costa Rica or Argentina, a hunting excursion to New Zealand or a safari to South Africa, you might want to do some homework on the geography of these countries and regions of the globe beforehand. You may be surprised to learn something about that country that will make your journey less stressful and much more productive and pleasant.
If I may paraphrase an old axiom, “It’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.” ◊
Editor’s note: A version of this article previously appeared in the The Logos, the University of the Incarnate Word school newspaper.
A certified consulting meteorologist, Larry Peabody has been an OWAA member since 1991. He is a freelance writer. Peabody is also an adjunct lecturer in the University of the Incarnate Word meteorology department. Contact him at lpeabody@ satx.rr.com.

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