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Students' Geographic Ignorance Revealed During Drawing Test

October 29, 1987|From Times Wire Services

TUCSON, Ariz. — Assignment: On a blank piece of paper, draw a map of the world from memory. Label all countries and include any other features of interest or importance. Limit: 30 minutes.

Thomas F. Saarinen, a University of Arizona geographer, put that proposition to college students as part of an unprecedented worldwide survey.

Among the 4,277 maps drawn by such first-year students in 54 countries was one putting Australia at the top of the world. Another world map showed only the Philippines, surrounded by an unknown world where sea dragons lurk.

The students, who had no advance warning of the assignment, averaged about 30 countries per map--fewer than one-fifth of the independent countries in the world, Saarinen said. The 640 U.S. students who were tested ranked about average.

The maps are the largest collection of world sketches ever assembled, Saarinen said.

Simplistic Notions

One of Saarinen's theories holds that world problems grow from simplistic notions--that decisions are made on the basis of people's ideas about the world.

"If you don't have knowledge of the rest of the world, how are you going to make decisions?" he asked. "Before we can have a shared world image, we have to understand what images are present and why."

Saarinen selected a cultural cross-section of students enrolled in introductory geography courses. "If they don't know how to draw a map of the world, who does?"

Saarinen's biggest surprise was the "perceived importance" of Europe. Eighty percent placed Europe in the center of their worlds. Many exaggerated its size.

He cited the colonial legacy, at least in the educational system.

'Mental Images'

"Our mental images don't seem to have caught up with the reality of a world of free and independent nations," he said.

Small European countries such as Great Britain showed up on most maps. And maps from faraway places such as New Zealand contained detailed information about the mother country.

With the exception of certain European countries, the nations most often included were the Soviet Union, Canada, China, the United States, Brazil, India and Australia.

Saarinen said he expected countries closest to home to be drawn in detail, with those farther away sketched as "vague blobs with lots of blanks."

But he found that language and cultural and political ties often made distant places better known.

Other observations:

Africa generally was sketched smaller than it should have been, with lots of blank spaces. That reflects a lack of awareness of the Third World.

Postage-stamp countries were most often left off maps, especially countries in Central America, West Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe's Balkan peninsula.

Hungarian maps, the product of an educational system that stresses learning all the countries of the world, were among the best.

Humor Added

Some students couldn't resist adding a little humor: exploding maps, rockets bursting between the United States and the Soviet Union and lightning bolts flashing over world trouble spots.

Saarinen, who has been at the University of Arizona since 1965, administered the classroom test in 30 of the countries surveyed last year. His research assistant, Charles MacCabe, helped with the other countries.

The project was sponsored by the International Geographical Union and financed by the National Geographic Society.

The task ahead is analyzing the maps and getting the information into a computer. One problem has been lining up 14 translators.

Down the road probably is a book that would be available to geography teachers around the world.

One geography lesson Saarinen proposes is for teachers to inform students that other nations "are not perverse or evil because they don't look at the world the way we do."

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