The pattern has been predictable thus far: Every few years, North Korea does something rash, such as test a missile or sink a South Korean patrol ship. Then, on cue, the Americans and their allies cry foul. Ultimatums are traded, tensions heightened. But eventually things settle down.
This time around, with President Donald Trump threatening “fire and fury” against the Kim dynasty, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel decided to test Hollywood pedestrians to see if they can find North Korea on a map. It’s an old gimmick, replayed every time the U.S. gets into a spat with the DPRK. Still, the video is astounding. Nearly everyone interviewed fails to locate North Korea. (Is it by Greenland? Next to Nebraska? In Afghanistan?) The live studio audience, as could be expected, eats it up.
But the obliviousness revealed by Kimmel’s stunt is no laughing matter. American ignorance of basic (and I mean truly basic) world geography has a long and shocking history. Just take Korea as an example. In 1945, the country’s postwar liberation from Japanese rule produced the thorny problem of which revolutionary faction should have sovereign authority. Preparing for a protracted proxy struggle with the Soviet Union, the United States quickly set to the task of dividing Korea into zones of influence, a model deployed for similar reasons in Germany. But unlike Germany, Korea was a total unknown to the American generals. Rumor has it that young staffer Dean Rusk, when assigned the job of drawing the partition by the State Department, had to get a copy of National Geographic to figure out exactly where Korea was. (Rusk, it would so happen, went on to become Secretary of State.)
I’ll give Kimmel’s interview subjects a break to focus on something closer to home. Many Yalies know nothing about world geography. I can’t say whether this subset of the vocally ignorant represents a true majority of the Americans in the undergraduate student body. But, as I continue to encounter examples of Yalies’ geographic ignorance on a regular basis, I am convinced that they say something very bad about the state of our collective geographic knowledge. I’ll present some highlights, going from bad, to worse, to worst.
This summer I encountered a Yale student who did not know the difference between Niger (a landlocked Saharan nation) and Nigeria. I met a Yale student last year who asked a Swedish doctoral student what language was spoken in Sweden. (He wasn’t thinking of the Sami dialects.) Then, the kicker: Could she please tell him where it was? (The real follow up, I kid you not: “Where’s Denmark?”) Finally, my (least) favorite: A Yale student, vocally supportive of one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, literally did not know what the Gaza Strip was.
If you think I’m intentionally shaming students for their ignorance, you’re spot on. It is shameful that students at Yale University, or any university, for that matter, do not know basic facts about world geography. This isn’t snobbishness, and it’s not a tough ask. We assimilate so much information on the daily: sports statistics, Game of Thrones house genealogies, bits of social gossip — let alone content from our courses. There is no excuse whatsoever for an active citizen of a country such as the United States, a superpower with global influence and a legacy of imperialist interventions, to remain ignorant of the layout of this world. It doesn’t matter whether you are a brilliant writer, an accomplished mathematician or a budding scientist. Your fundamental education is incomplete until you are able to locate Chile on a map. This is something that many, many Yale students struggle to do.
We need a geography requirement. Geographic illiteracy is humiliating — and reveals, much like Americans’ collective ignorance of foreign languages, the small-mindedness of our imperial hubris. Perhaps, as a number of social scientists have suggested, this ignorance also explains American apathy in the case of overseas crises. Why do the overwhelming majority of Americans pay no attention to the war in Yemen, where one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in recent memory is unfolding? One theory would submit that a big part of it is that most Americans just don’t know where Yemen is. Be honest with yourself. Do you?
How do we fulfill this requirement? I suppose that Yale could offer a core class, “GGRPH 110: Basic Contours of Countries,” and insist that those who can’t describe the location of the Philippines, the world’s twelfth most populous country, sign up for sections. But I think what’s needed is something more lasting, an approach that goes far beyond the rote memorization of country names and locations. Yale students need some kind of area studies requirement, or a foreign language requirement that truly forces students to think about the immense complexity of the outside world. Otherwise it’s back to National Geographic.
Gabriel Groz is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .