You laugh when Leno does his Jaywalkers segments and some poor schmuck says that Ben Franklin was our second president or some blonde bimbo guesses that the cut-out image of the state of Louisiana is Canada… but the reality is that us Americans really stink at history… and mainly geography.It’s likely my one pet peeve about being an American. It seems to center on females, mostly (I cringe when they know the detailed directions to get to every shopping mall within a 25 mile radius but they don’t know where Lake Michigan is).. but, yeah, males can be pretty bad as well. I mean, I can see one sidestepping through life butchering history, but in this day and age of world markets influencing our daily lives there truly is no excuse not knowing where places are.. inside or outside our country. If nothing else, you can relate better to foreign visitors to this country (just the other day I was chatting with a new employee from Morocco and I asked if she was from Rabat, the capital… which pleasantly shocked her that I knew of the place).
But, ok.. you might be able to put a fair amount of blame on the educational system putting geography on a lower priority. I recall in grammar school we had few exercises in world geography; in high school I don’t recall anything notable. It wasn’t until I had a college level geography course, not from choice but because it was a requirement for the degree I was after at the time. There were the occassional board games and flash card trivia games that might test your knowledge of geography as part of the game, but quite frankly, the bulk of my geographical awareness came from the news of the day.
Being interested in history and of course the various wars I was fairly ahead of the others in class regarding country capitals and major cities of the world. I mean, I knew where Paris was, Berlin, Zurich, Rome, London, Moscow; Moscow was always in the news for some reason since the Cold War was in full swing when I was a kid in school. I was also a stamp collector and a short wave radio listener… so I had cerebral geek geography knowledge light years over my peers at the time. Cairo, Tel-Aviv, Beirut (in the “good” days), Athens, Havana… I knew them all (even the tricky ones… like before Istanbul there was Byzantium and Constantinople; and we kids never knew how to pronounce the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, until years later, but we could recognize the spelling).
But it was the news that brought these places home. In my earliest of early recollections… maybe 1955 give or take a couple years… I recall cities repeatedly in the news with names like Saigon and Hanoi in a place then called French Indo-China; Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat… and Viet Minh communists. There was the coup in Indonesia in the early 60’s that brought out Djakarta (Jakarta)… Manila in the Phillipines… other trouble spots of the day like Singapore, Phnom-Penh in Cambodia, and Laos. Many of these names would become names shared over our dinner tables in the years to come.
I recall learning a lot about South Africa during those early days as well. Apartheid was in full swing.. with civil unrest in places like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria. Then there was the Congo Crisis in 1964 that put Stanleyville (now Kisangani) in the common news. In our own hemisphere there were the South American coups all the time. Caracas (not to be confused with Karachi, Pakistan), San Salvadore (capital of country “El” Salvadore), Bogata (before the drugs), Buenos Aires… all were cities in the news constantly (I used to listen to an English language short wave broadcast from Quito, Ecuador for years.. along with Radio Havana). And all of this continued into the 80’s and 90’s…
Remember when we sent the troops to rescue those medical students in Granada from the nasty Cubans (just 48 hours after the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut)? We learned the capital there was St. George’s… and other spots like Grenville and Port Salinas. It doesn’t take a true Baby Boomer to recall the Falkland War the Brits had with Argentina. The list of towns read like WW2 battle locations… Goose Green, Ajax Bay, Darwin, Port Stanley. We learned all those names on the daily play-by-play on radio and TV from the news services. It was actually a war we were not participating in (with boots on the ground) and we had the Brits to cheer on.
Then there was that Black Hawk Down event in 1993… where we not only learned there was a country called Somalia that needed our humantiarian aid.. but it also had a capital called Mogadishu (on any other day seeing that word would confound us… not anymore). Of course you can never forget the Serbian-Croatian conflict from 1991-1995. We learned about Croatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia… and cities like Sarajevo (a city we learned about years before as the jewel site of the 1984 Winter Olympics… and became the longest running city under siege in modern warfare), Belgrade, Zagreb, and Mostar.
Iran gave us Baghdad, Tikrit, Karbala, Ramadi, Nassiria; and to this day we are still learning new locations… Kandahar, Kabul, Pakistan’s Islamabad. Libya’s Tripoli, Syria’s Damascus and Homs… and the beat goes on. Geography is a part of our future as much as it has been a part of our past.
Remember that theory presented in the movie Jurassic Park called Chaos Theory? Better yet, the butterfly effect is a better example. The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings at one location can affect the weather on a grand scale in another location. Thus is the direction our own world is taking with the advent of instant communications. That seemingly insignificant local drought in the African plain might topple a government in South America. The link is geography and all its attributes. We need to bone up on this stuff or get left behind as a nation.
Regarding Reykjavik… oddly enough I got stationed in Iceland in 1972-1973 while serving in the Air Force. While I was there the capital received some news notariety as being the location for the famous Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky World Chess Championship… and… Nixon and French President Pompidou had a summit on May 31, 1973. It was then that everyone learned how to pronounce the capital, rake-yah-vik.