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Bennett Laments U.S. Students’ Ignorance of Geography

October 30, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Education Secretary William J. Bennett says he always looks around the classrooms he visits for the equipment, and one thing he rarely finds is a map.

″When I was a boy, there were always maps in our classrooms, and they served as a reminder to us that maps were important, and geography was important,″ Bennett said Thursday.

Bennett told the story during a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on education arts and humanities to illustrate his point that American students have ″a woeful lack of grasp″ of geography.

Bennett, along with Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., urged educators to make geography a priority again.

Both were seated in front of maps of the world and the United States as they spoke of one recent survey in which nearly half the seniors tested in Baltimore could not shade in the area that represented the United States on a map. The same survey showed one-fourth of those tested in Dallas could not identify the country immediately to the south of the United States.

Another study they cited was done in 1984 at an unidentified Indiana college. In that, 95 percent of the freshmen couldn’t locate Vietnam on a map.

Bennett blamed the decline in geographic knowledge on ″education innovation.″

Geography, he said, ″is largely a field that requires a grasp of facts, and the study of facts took a beating during the cultural revolution of the sixties. It’s not a bad thing to know your facts and to know where things are.″

The hearing was held at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington and comes about two weeks before the start of ″Geography Awareness Week″ on Nov. 15.

Bradley, who introduced the resolution designating the week, said he hoped it would ″draw attention to our need to insure that both we and our children know our world in all its complexity and diversity.″

″We are a nation of worldwide investments,″ Bradley said, ″whose global influence and responsibilities demand an understanding of the lands and cultures of the world.″

Former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said he has discovered since he became chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution about two years ago that American students have an ″appalling″ lack of knowledge of both history and geography. ″The two are so close, they can’t be separated,″ he said.

Magda Marshall, a junior at Edina High School in Edina, Minn., told the subcommittee she lived in Panama until she was 12 and was ″taught the continents and how they are attached as early as when I learned my ABCs. It was surprising to me,″ she said, ″to find out that students in the United States could not recognize the shape of their own country.″

The last of those testifying to the Senate panel was the youngest. Jeremy Gruenwald, a sixth-grader at Bells School in Turnersville, N.J., read the subcommittee an essay he had written on the significance of geography.

″How can we learn about places if we can’t even get to them?″ he wrote. ″Also, there are mountains, rivers, lakes and canyons we wouldn’t know about without geography.″

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