North Korea is the most talked about nation on the planet right now, yet just 36 percent of Americans know where it is located on a map, according to a new study. Yes, you read that correctly: 36 percent.
An experiment conducted by Morning Consulting at the request of the New York Times found that respondents who could correctly identify North Korea on a map were less likely to call for a military response than those who couldn’t find it. In response to the question of whether America should do something or nothing about North Korea, most people who could find the country agreed something should be done; those who could not locate North Korea leaned towards inaction.
Republican men were more likely than Democratic men to correctly locate North Korea and were in favor of the diplomatic approaches offered by the researchers; women, regardless of party affiliation, were able to find the country at similar rates, the Times noted.
But North Korea isn’t the only conflict nation U.S. citizens struggle to find.
We didn’t do well with Ukraine in 2014, either. One in six Americans were unable to find the Eastern European nation on a map. Like the recent experiment with North Korea, those who could not find Ukraine on a map were more likely to favor a military intervention than those who could.
Education is a factor. Those with advanced degrees were most successful in finding North Korea. The only group of respondents who did a better job of finding the country were those who knew someone of Korean ancestry. People who have traveled abroad were also more likely to find North Korea than those who had not left the country. Older people tended to score well, especially those over 65-years-old, which makes sense, as a lot of them were around when the U.S. was actually fighting the Korean War.
But, we really shouldn’t be too surprised that many Americans are unable to pinpoint hotspot nations. By and large, we’re not the most engaged folks when it comes to foreign policy, as The Times explains:
Americans’ inability to identify countries and places is not new. A Roper survey in 2006 found that, in the midst of the Iraq war, six in 10 young adults could not locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East; about 75 percent could not identify Iran or Israel; and only half could identify New York state.
But how important is this, really?
In “Why Geography Matters,” Harm de Blij wrote that geography is “a superb antidote to isolationism and provincialism,” and argued that “the American public is the geographically most illiterate society of consequence on the planet, at a time when United States power can affect countries and peoples around the world.”
This spatial illiteracy, geographers say, can leave citizens without a framework to think about foreign policy questions more substantively. “The paucity of geographical knowledge means there is no check on misleading public representations about international matters,” said Alec Murphy, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon.
A big factor in this dearth of geographical knowledge is the American education system. In 2015, the Government Accountability Office found that more than half of U.S. social studies teachers spend less than 10 percent of their time on geography. In fact, only 17 states require a geography course in middle or high school. Comparatively, European nations outshine Americans by wide margins, according to a 2002 National Geographic survey; Americans came in second to last.
Andreas Schleicher, a Paris-based director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) told VICE how vital it is for children to learn about the world beyond their borders:
“Geography is often thought to help students understand different cultures and social systems in Europe, and to see the world through different lenses, appreciate different perspectives and values,” the OECD’s Schleicher tells me. “That being said, geography in Europe is often taught in a rather Eurocentric way” that places Europe at the center of the universe and privileges European narratives over others, he adds.
The last part isn’t particularly good, but at least Europeans have a good grasp on where places are in the world. Everyone will view things through their own lens. Our ability to recognize those biases so that they do not negatively influence our decision making is what is key.
What makes Americans’ lack of geography skills so worrisome is that our military is the most expansive in the world and this current administration seems very eager to use it. In the case of North Korea, it is essential to understand the geographical layout the region and Washington’s role in it. Whenever Pyongyang conducts a missile test, it scares the daylights out of Japan, China, South Korea and the U.S. (because of its Pacific-based military bases—namely Guam) because of their close proximity.
As Foxtrot Alpha previously reported, a major refugee crisis could emerge from a U.S. military strike against North Korea that could present complex migration problems for China, South Korea and perhaps other nations in the region. So, for the majority of folks in the experiment who are calling for military action, we wonder if they appreciate the geopolitical implications of their preferred military solutions.