What is the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands? (I’ll Wait)
Why We Americans Are Geographically ChallengedLast updated Monday September 13th, 2010
By Al HUTCHISON
At a recent dinner party, the pre-meal conversation turned to some issue that involved the United Kingdom. I was born and reached my teens in Scotland. As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time there, emboldening me to offer my opinion on any topic concerning my native land.
“I’m British ...” I began,
“You’re not British, you’re Scottish,” the host brusquely interrupted.
A day or two later, another friend casually observed that “You Scots really hate the British, don’t you?”
Scots are British. Why is that so difficult to understand? The United Kingdom is comprised of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. True, England is by far the largest of these and is the name given to their common language, but that doesn’t mean the others are not a part of the whole. The Union Jack is Britain’s flag, not England’s, and its design combines the flags of England, Scotland and Ireland. For some reason (its flag isn’t at all like the others, which may be the best explanation), Wales is not represented in the Union Jack although there was talk a few years ago of a redesign to include the cross of St. David, the patron saint of Wales.
The famous Houses of Parliament may be in London, but England doesn’t have a parliament of its own (although Scotland and Wales do, and that’s sometimes an understandable sore point with the English). Nor does England have a prime minister, a foreign policy, an army, navy or air force. But Britain has all of those. Yes, England has a queen, but she’s also the monarch for the rest of the United Kingdom.
As a foreign-born citizen of these United States, I’ve long been aware that geography and world history have not been real strengths in American classrooms. But it has been only since these two recent social encounters that have I constructed a theory about why Americans have so much trouble recognizing the true nature of the United Kingdom or, if you prefer, Great Britain.
My thinking about these American attitudes began to take shape in 1946, on my very first day of class in America. My eighth grade social studies teacher took me aside and very sweetly complimented me on how well I spoke English. I was dumbstruck. I’d never known any other language, unless you count what I’d learned (not much) in French class.
I was born and raised in Scotland where, except for a few hardy souls in distant corners (such as, say, the Outer Hebrides), English is the common language. But my American teacher didn’t know enough about Britain to know that. I suppose she thought if I were Scottish, surely I’d have grown up speaking Scottish. Well, my grandmother sometimes reverted to what is usually referred to as “auld Scots” (it’s a dialect, not a language) and I knew some of her favorite expressions in that ancient tongue, but they weren’t part of my every day discourse.
Soon I discovered that the problem wasn’t limited to issues of language. My new American friends seemed to know very little about foreign countries, period, except where they loomed large in recent American history. Thus, in 1946, they knew something about Germany and Japan, but even then only in vague, general terms. These countries were “over there” but I’m not sure they knew exactly where “there” was. They could probably find Canada and Mexico on a map, but beyond that they seemed pretty hapless.
Anyway, here’s my admittedly simplistic theory about why geography has always been emphasized in British schools while getting short shrift in the America’s classrooms: Britain for generations had a vast empire while the United States never did. Because of the British Empire, schools had no choice but to teach all about Britain’s many far-flung colonies. Conversely, because there was no American equivalent, there never developed an urgent need to teach about all these far away places with strange sounding names.
It’s long been a theory of mine that Americans get to know foreign countries only when their own troops have to fight there. Thus Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are far better known than, say, Kenya, Indonesia, Finland and Uruguay. How many Americans do you think can find Corsica on a world atlas?
Granted, there are other factors. For instance, because of the Atlantic and Pacific, there are great distances separating the United States from Europe and Asia, so foreign nations seem somehow less important or at least less relevant (although that argument is weakened by the surging importance of global trade). In Britain, it’s just a short hop to all parts of Europe and not even that far from the nearer regions of Asia.
Going back to my first impressions, formed in 1946, there was also a sharp contrast between the way my Scottish schools functioned and what I found in this country. Mostly, I was surprised by the extremely casual tone that differed so strikingly from the rigorous discipline I’d known in the past, but I was also struck by the shorter school days and the almost total absence of homework. Those factors, however, probably cannot be blamed for any weakness in the study of geography and world history.
With or without rigorous discipline and heavy homework, the fact that India and Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) were important outposts in the British Empire made it only natural that Britain’s school children would be taught all about them. In a democracy the purpose of a public education is (or should be) to prepare the next generation to serve the nation well. An informed public will constitute a better citizenry than one that hasn’t been educated. At least, that’s the theory.
In practice, of course, there is evidence that pupils (and sometimes their parents) often place more emphasis on social, athletic and financial success than on learning to become good citizens who are therefore able to vote intelligently. That’s why sometimes I worry about my grandchildren.
But I’ll make sure they know the difference between England and Britain.