Why do Americans suck at geography?

Pop Vulture

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Listen, there’s something uniquely humbling about being an idiot and knowing it.

Whenever I’m confronted with evidence that I simply did not deserve to pass the third grade, I think of it as God’s hand reaching down from the heavens to cuff me on the back of the neck. Sometimes, we just all need a gentle reminder that we’re not all that.

Last weekend, I played two straight hours of Sporcle quizzes. If you don’t remember from middle school, Sporcle is a trivia website where users take quizzes on various subjects. Most of them are pretty matter-of-fact, like identifying all 50 states and their capitals. There are some weird ones, like how many and which states start with the same letter as their capitals? (The answer is three, but I honestly feel like two of them are cop-outs: Dover, Delaware; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. See what I mean?)

Anyway, my Sporcle excursion was pretty demoralizing. I was playing against Cal track and field junior Deshae Wise, who is inexplicably obsessed with geography. I don’t say “inexplicably” or “obsessed” lightly. Neither of us are exactly banking on our futures in the State Department, but one of us is unsure of whether Greece is to the left or right of Italy, and the other one is weirdly resolute on figuring out which Balkan state split into what.

Why do I suck at geography? When we played, I couldn’t name a single other state’s capital. Imagine my dismay after reading the answers that I had actually been to two of them. At some point, you simply have to take measures to preserve yourself and your dignity, so I blame my ignorance on how eminently forgettable Carson City, Nevada, and Denver, Colorado were.

But listen, it can’t just be me. I had a conversation with someone whom I distinctly remember as being from California telling me she’d thought Sacramento was somewhere southeast of San Francisco. To be clear, I find that reprehensible, but I would also struggle to tell you the north-to-south order of Irvine, Malibu and Huntington Beach. The moral of this story is that no one except Deshae is good at anything. But why is it exactly that Americans suck at geography?

The global stereotype of Americans as hulking masses trudging through lifetimes in the same landlocked cornfield says we suck at geography because we suck. There’s a degree of truth there: The majority of the news inside the United States is about the United States, and if we’re not involved in some way, then we don’t care. Our conception of the world beyond is largely shaped by the nation’s foreign affairs, but not even in a way that’s vaguely educational. It’s not like when the Iraq War began we all started learning where Iraq was. We can’t all be Henry Kissinger.

But I don’t buy it. I do think that domestic media and your required elementary school curriculum are hilariously adherent to the same nonsensically simplistic treatment of state, race, freedom, justice, bald eagles. … The list goes on, but that can’t really be the whole answer. I also think efforts to deconstruct global stereotypes of the United States are borderline apologies for interventionism, but I’m not sure we suck at geography absolutely — maybe just relatively.

Here’s what I mean by relatively: I think Americans play the hick foil to cosmopolitan Europeans. But I’m not sure there’s any actual normative judgment to be made there. While I was cheating my way through the Sporcle quiz of Europe, I discovered that traveling from the Netherlands to Spain would require crossing through Belgium and France. If you drove this journey, you’d need 16 hours and at least an elementary grasp of three languages — Dutch, French and Spanish — which, as I would understand, is not that unusual for a European.

That multilingualism seems exceptionally educated and whatnot until you realize that if you were to travel twice that distance across the United States horizontally, you’d only be in Memphis, Tennessee, where they coincidentally, still speak English. It seems less cool to admit Europeans learn languages because they kind of have to.

Even though I try really hard to have a nuanced view on why Americans suck at geography, I might just have to chalk this one up to self-absorption. We as a nation are just really into ourselves, and I’m sure there is some deep subliminal connection there between our ideological emphasis on individualism and our inability to mind our own geopolitical business. I started this column from the lighthearted resentment of a sore loser, but now that I’m concluding, I have turned the corner into disillusioned acceptance.

Geography is not even the most important thing Americans suck at. We suck at keeping people alive; we suck at maintaining the habitability of a planet; we suck at a whole host of things that no amount of knowing where the Seychelles are will fix. Case in point: I saw a post on Reddit that said: “Why do Americans suck at geography? Because only the ones who skipped class survived.”

Casey Li writes the Monday column on popular culture. Contact her at [email protected]