Where in the world IS Carmen Sandiego?

Written By: Rachel Strong
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One of the sensations on YouTube highlights the state of our education system. The spot was recorded during Miss Teen USA Pageant. Miss Teen South Carolina, Caitlin Upton, was asked:

“One out of five Americans cannot locate the United States on a world map. Why do you believe this is?”

Geography is one of the least-emphasized subjects in school. The study of maps and the relationships between states or countries used to be its own subject. Now, however, it’s resigned to be included in Social Studies. In most schools, "Geography" consists of students simply coloring a map and labeling the states, or countries (depending on what is being studied)... open atlas.

While the National Geographic Society says the actual statistic is not 20% but only 6% of Americans who cannot locate the US on the map, the state of our World Studies program is still lacking. Just as most people know the states that border their own (which made the gag of “the four states that border Springfield” funny in this summer’s The Simpsons Movie), students usually have no problem with the countries border the US (it helps that there’s only two).

So what did someone currently in the school system say the problem was? South Carolina’s lovely Miss Teen’s answer is as follows (word for word):

“I personally believe that US Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and the Iraq, everywhere, such as, and I believe that they should our education over here in the US should help the US-or should help the South Africa and the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future.”

While this is a horrible example of how not to answer a beauty pageant question-and a wonderful example of a run-on sentence-it was still a good enough answer to win her 4th place in the competition.

On August 28, Upton was given another chance to answer the question on the Today Show. She responded:

“Well, personally, my friends and I, we know exactly where the United States is on our map. I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t, and if the statistics are correct, I believe there should be more emphasis on Geography in our education so people will learn how to read maps better.”

But what would happen if we ask her what countries border Brazil (from northeast to southwest: French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana Venezuela, Columbia, Peru, Bolivia Paraguay, and Argentina, Uruguay), what is the only (inhabited) island continent (Australia), what continent is Luxemburg located (Europe), or point to Iraq on a map? If she’s like most her age, will get a blank stares. Even still, give a student an outline of the world and ask them to fill it out, most students will be able to fill out less than half without the help of an atlas, globe, or world map., being able to locate other countries quickly and easily is extremely important.

When we were students, growing up in the late 80s and 90s, we at least had the PBS show and the computer game series “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” to teach us geography and fun facts about states and countries.

Being able to locate other countries quickly and easily is extremely important. If your school does not emphasize geography, pick it up at home!

As someone to whom geography comes easy, I personally find it difficult to understand how someone can find geography can be a stumbling point, and I completely agree with Miss Upton’s assessment that Geography must be emphasized in school. As the world becomes smaller, we need to know where fit into this crazy world.

If your student’s school is not ready to add another separate course, there are things you can do to help emphasize geography in your home:

Put a world map in your family room or computer room.

As your student learns something new about another country, put a sticker on the country on the map.

When a state or country is mentioned on the news or on a television program, have your student locate that country or state on the map.

Before your child dresses, have him or her locate the clothes’ country of origin.

When your favorite sports team is playing another, have your student locate the opponents’ home state (or country).

During the Beijing Olympics next summer (opening ceremonies August 8, 2008), have your student keep a metal count on the map with gold, silver and bronze stars.

In today’s global economy, being able to locate other countries quickly and easily is extremely important. If your school does not emphasize geography, pick it up at home!

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