Americans are bad at geography

Illustration/Lichen Fischer

A reporter from Jimmy Kimmel is stationed on the Hollywood boardwalk; she instructs a man to point to any country in the entire world on a blank map. He points to Russia and says “South Africa?”

The stereotype that Americans are bad at geography has been around for decades, and as of late the media has played on the stereotype as a form of entertainment, selecting those with the least intelligible answers to be the ones broadcasted. 

“Intelligence is … a complex giant thing and just because if a person doesn’t know how to discern or identify a country on a map … that doesn’t mean that they are completely stupid and have no hope.” Jenifer Vernon, Communication Studies professor at Sierra College, said. “It just means they don’t know that bit of information.”

However over the past 20 years, geography specifically has become the main focus of the modern “clueless American” stereotype, but not necessarily to the fault of the people; the U.S. no longer finds it necessary. 

“We don’t prioritize geography in (the U.S.) education,” Granite Bay High School U.S. history teacher Brandon Dell’Orto said. 

Currently in the United States, only 20 states require a geography course for high school graduation, one of them being California.

However, many of the state requirements for geography are loose, such as here in California, leading to classes like U.S. history, filling the geography quota.

To a certain extent, people who don’t like us will find reasons not to like us

— Brandon Dell'Orto, United States history teacher

A mix of the loose educational enforcement and the prevalent media attention has led to the stereotype being popularized internationally as well, especially in Europe. It has grown into a joke, where other countries see the United States’ ineptitude as laughable. 

To Dell’Orto, however, this is seen as purely political.

“To a certain extent, people who don’t like us will find reasons not to like us,” said Dell’Orto.

As the most powerful nation in the world, our lack of geographical abilities is just more ammunition for them.

Aware of the stereotype, senior Letizia Piovesana, an Italian foreign exchange student spending her first year in the U.S. at GBHS noticed a clear difference between Italy and the U.S.

“(The Italian) scholastic system is more serious,” Piovesana said.

Unlike the U.S., geography is compulsory for schools in most of Europe, and as a result there’s a general belief there that the average European is more well-versed in geography than the average American.

Despite this, the difference in geographical knowledge between the United States and Europe is not as drastic as some may think.

In a survey where more than 1,000 Europeans and Americans were tasked to identify and locate 16 different countries from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America, U.S. residents averaged only 8% to 9% below Europeans for the correct answers for all 16 countries.

And while Americans are proven to be generally worse at geography than other similarly developed countries, to some a lack of geographical knowledge is not necessarily a call to action for a revamp of the American education curriculum.

“(The U.S. doesn’t) think it’s like a big deal. Because I think the way they look at it now, it’s probably like anybody can look anything up on their phones,” AP Government teacher Jarrod Westberg said. 

While making full geographical literacy attainable at the touch of a button, the new age of technology is also allowing people to learn about countries beyond just their name and place on a map.

“Memorizing where places are versus understanding what the countries are and what their value is … might be (more) valuable for people,” Westberg said.