Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Dude, where's my country?

There is a place in Nova Scotia called Sydney and a few years ago, a British woman ended up there rather than Sydney, Australia because she failed to pay close enough attention to the drop down menu when going through the motions on ebookers. The fact that she needed to alight at Montreal and complete her journey by husky-drawn sledge did not, apparently, set off any alarm bells. It was a costly error as she had packed only half a dozen bikinis and a corked hat.

Nova Scotia must get its fair share of default tourism because there is also a Liverpool, an Inverness, a Yarmouth and a Truro there. With the news today that one in five British children between the ages of six and fourteen could not pick Britain out on a map, perhaps Nova Scotia can expect a windfall in tourism in the next decade. Likewise, Cuba must be priming itself for an invasion of gap year students making their way to the small Cuban town of Central Australia in search of Uluru. Thanks to Peter Weir in 1974 and Wim Wenders ten years later, the world became aware that there are Parises in both Texas and northern New South Wales. Neither of them are approachable by Eurostar however. Knowing your geography can save you a lot of money and spare you the embarrassment of showing up with the wrong wardrobe and currency.

British children attend school for around forty-five minutes a day. Half of it is spent lining up to reject steamed asparagus in b├ęchamel sauce with honey carrots and dauphinoise potatoes especially prepared for them by Jamie Oliver. We know that they are not doing maths, English or history in the remaining time. It now seems clear that they are not doing geography either. One in ten of the thousand children surveyed are unable to name a single continent. It is estimated that around three per cent of London children don’t know they live in the nation’s capital. I suppose if you reside on a sink estate, attend a failing school and have never been further than your high street, it might not feel like much of a capital to you.

About a third couldn’t pick the USA and eighty-six per cent didn’t recognise Iraq. I don’t know that I’d recognise Iraq. Just because it’s in the news all the time, doesn’t mean you could sit down and sew it onto a sampler. Most countries aren’t really a very interesting shape. The USA by itself is not that special. The most distinctive countries by far are Australia, Africa and Italy. All the others are just variations on a square with the odd jutty bit of disputed territory. I couldn’t find out if the survey asked about the more recognisable countries but I’m sure many more kids would have picked them. I always thought that Britain looked a bit like a rabbit. That’s an easy way to remember it, a rabbit nibbling off the choicest chunk of Ireland.

To be fair, this latest evidence of the shrinking knowledge base of the nation’s children comes from National Geographic Magazine’s new kids’ edition and is timed to coincide with its British launch. Could be that they are looking to whip up a demand for their product. Kids don’t feel a need to retain information any more because it is so easily collected again. I would like to retain information but it is no longer physically possible. Unfortunately, I also seem to lack the ability to relocate information I have previously found, even if it was only five minutes ago. Consequently, I always have about thirty web pages open at any given time. This means that I could have completed a Masters in Geography in the time it takes to load a new page.

My childhood memory of National Geographic is that it contained a lot of very beautiful pictures of people with dinosaur bones through their noses, a hundred brass rings around their necks and a bread and butter plate tucked into their lower lip. It didn’t fill me with an immediate desire to see the world. I always did like maps though. There was usally a map of the world on the wall in classrooms. These days the walls are decorated with posters reminding children to refrain from shooting each other if at all possible. There are few opportunities now to see the shape of a country unless you have an atlas or a globe at home. Travel guides and newspaper supplements don’t have maps, only directions for McDonalds and instructions for what to do if the spa bath doesn’t work. Google Earth only shows you how big the houses are and where the CCTV cameras are located. It certainly doesn’t paint all the countries different colours so you can tell where one ends and the next one begins.

Think of how much more difficult it must have been during the days of empire. School children had to remember where all the pink bits were and whether or not they produced hemp, jute, rubber or sugar. British kids are amongst the best-travelled in the world but they mostly go to places that are not big enough to be on a map like Ibiza or Tenerife. It also only takes two hours to get there so there is no sense that they have actually journeyed. They could be in Leeds but for the palm trees.

Children are apparently more interested in whether we are killing the people in Iraq than recognising it as an inkblot on a piece of card. They are more concerned about whether we are destroying the Amazonian rain forest than looking at pictures of people with curiously distorted facial features. Fewer children are taking geography at GCSE and A level now and the government is worried about it in the few brief moments when it can take time out from worrying about what everyone is wearing and whether or not we are eating five portions of fruit and veg a day. A new £2 million scheme has been announced to reignite children's interest in the shapes of countries and locations of borders. According to The Telegraph today, ‘every secondary school in England will receive a copy of Michael Palin's best-selling book Himalaya’, as well. That is excellent news for Michael Palin but a bit of a shame for students as 'Himalaya' is not actually a country. Perhaps Bill Bryson's 'Notes from a Small Island' would have been a better choice.

Cartoon from 'The Age'


Penless Artist said...

This entry made me laugh. I remember the morning I heard the CBC radio story about the woman who bought a ticket for Sydney, Cape Breton rather than Sydney Australia. I was eating breakfast at the time and sat in my kitchen, fork in air, in complete disbelief. I remember wondering at what part of the trip she discovered the error... if it wasn't until they landed in Montreal, she would have had a confused moment where she felt relief at the news that the connection from Montreal to Sydney was 2 hours, rather than 19, but wondered if it was maaaaaybe too good to be true.

As for not knowing how to find Iraq on a map -- I tend to excuse our difficulty with this one on the basis that, when we are shown maps of Iraq on the news, they are usually local, zoomed in images. Also, as I would probably personally put it in someplace like North Africa, I'm very generous in excusing this and saying that it's ok for most of us to not know exactly where Iraq is.

What is more difficult to excuse is when the soldiers who are there don't know. I remember an interesting Michael Moore moment where he asked soldiers stationed in or headed for places like Iraq and Afghanistan to point to these places on the map. The ones he asked pointed to, well, northern Africa.

In Canada, we also have a London, a Paris, and a Waterloo. If only we had a Brussels, I might get more accidental visits from my family and friends.

Enjoy your blog and am looking forward to reading more.

Martin McCallion said...

Would it be churlish of me to point out that Africa isn't a country either? :-)

That's so pants said...

Shazam - I can't believe I've been caught out with that one again! I did used to know that. Is having a senior moment an acceptable excuse for a howler like that?