So, Do You Know Where Lhasa Is?

Mapmakers urge geographical literacy

The big-wigs at Dayton Hudson Corp. know their way around a map. But when the Minneapolis-based retailers want to find the ideal location for a new Target store, they call a team of geographers.

"We don't have a dart board and just say, 'let's go there,' " says Gail Dorn, vice president for communications for Target Stores in Minneapolis. "We have to look at demographics, income levels, high-growth areas, environmental factors, transportation links. It's a pretty sophisticated process."

As this example shows, the discipline of geography involves much more than memorizing state capitals. It's the study of human patterns around the globe, as well as the physical patterns of the globe itself.

And it's becoming increasingly important in the nation's corporate boardrooms. Knowledge of the world both in and outside US borders is crucial to the country's success in a global marketplace.

That's why, in a report released today, the nation's top geographers are calling for an all-out effort to improve geographical literacy among all Americans. And perhaps the most significant item in the National Research Council report suggests a "significant national program" to improve adult education in geography in colleges, corporations, government agencies, and interest groups.

"If we simply allowed the school systems to take care of the problem, with no effort to educate adults, we'd have to wait a generation for geographically literate leaders," says Kevin Crowley, an NRC spokesman.

Studies have long shown that US children don't know much about geography. A recent survey found that few young Americans can name the nation's top trading partner (Canada). In 1989, US students had the lowest geography scores of any industrialized nation on standardized tests.

Not surprising, American adults may not know much more. A 1986 survey of young adults in nine countries found US twenty-somethings on the bottom of the heap. Forty-five percent of them couldn't find New York on a map. (Lhasa, by the way, is a city in Tibet.)

While these findings are far from definitive, geographers suspect that geographical illiteracy is distributed throughout US age groups. Most Americans have learned geography as simply points on a map. Unlike schools in Asia and Europe, American schools have never given geography the same prominence as other disciplines.

Such ignorance demands action, geographers say. The new NRC report "Rediscovering Geography" recommends:

*The US should reexamine geography education standards to ensure kids learn the most relevant aspects of the subject.

*The US government and the National Geographic Society should mount a major effort to improve the geographical literacy of the nation's leaders.

*Geography organizations should increase outreach to companies and other entities that could benefit from more geographical knowledge.

Geographers think the rest of the nation often doesn't appreciate their relevance. When bankers want to expand into new markets, geographers help them understand local customs and locate skilled labor. Geographers study the location and persistence of famines in sub-Saharan Africa, track pollution in rivers, and follow the growth of the world's refugee population.

"We're not the musty keepers of rolled-up maps in the closet," says William Graf, a geography professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Dr. Graf led an effort to trace radioactive plutonium that had been dumped from Los Alamos National Laboratory into a tributary of the Rio Grande River. Using field data, mathematical models, and geographical theories, Graf found most of the plutonium in New Mexico's Cochiti Reservoir. "The federal government spends $50 million cleaning up Los Alamos. But the problem isn't at Los Alamos; it's in the river, where people fish and animals drink."

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