The Geography of Ignorance

Geographical confusion about Chechnya following the Boston bombings demonstrated the sad state of global educational affairs.

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Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of "Great Decisions in Foreign Policy" on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan

Mark Twain once said that "God created war so that Americans would learn geography."

When, one week ago, news outlets reported that the two suspects in the Boston bombing hailed from Chechnya, it exposed, once again the lack of understanding among Americans about the most basic goings on in the world – setting off a scramble to figure out where these men came from and what may have inspired them to carry out their act of terror.

For the better part of the 1990s, this breakaway Russian province experienced some of the worst urban combat in modern times as it sought independence from post-Soviet Russia. Russia's brutal crackdown on Islamist elements in Chechnya and its neighbors in the northern Caucasus, including Dagestan, where the Tsarnaev family actually had its roots – also helped lay the path for Vladimir Putin, constant hamper to American interests, to take over the Russian presidency. It's a historic event that most people in Europe and other parts of the world are generally familiar with or at the very least, aware of.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Boston Marathon bombings.]

Here in the U.S.? Not so much. Instead, in the wake of the Chechnya connection, Twitter feeds and other social media outlets exploded with anger at ... the Czech Republic. Yes, that's right. The Czech Republic - a U.S. ally whose own revolution played a key role in the demise of the Soviet empire. Here are a few examples posted by the "tweeps" in question, courtesy of the website Public Shaming (note that many contain profanities aimed at Czechs and even Czechoslovakians, citizens, apparently, of a country that broke apart in 1993). Reading through some of the comments, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when it became clear to most that a better understanding of the world would be critical to maintaining American security and hegemony, survey after survey shows that young Americans continue to lag behind in geography and global competence. In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that just one in four of our nation's students scored proficiently in geography, and last year a study from World Savvy found that a whopping 72 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds could not name the region Afghanistan is located in, despite the U.S being at war there for more than a decade.

As President Obama and leaders in education continue to focus on American students' shortcomings in math and science, millions of federal dollars are spent on these subjects through the No Child Left Behind Act, but none goes to the study of geography, according to National Geographic. The U.S. neglects teaching geography and global affairs at its own peril. It is estimated that roughly 70,000 jobs in geotechnology are created annually in the U.S., and a better understanding of geography and world events is critical in nearly every sector of the economy today. Members of the so-called “millennial” generation know it. The World Savvy report revealed that while 80 percent of those surveyed believe jobs are becoming increasingly global in nature, just 12 percent said they felt they'd been given adequate instruction in school to help them better understand global issues. The knowledge gap among young people today and the world, despite being more connected through technology than ever, has recently been debated in op-ed pages, from the New York Times to the Huffington Post.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Did Media Botch the Boston Bombing?]

Of course, one cannot blame the American educational system and our distracted youth alone. The broadcast media for years has cut back on resources dedicated to covering world events, despite significant earnings by news organizations and their media parent companies. Magazines like Time dumb down their covers for American audiences, as Slate points out here. And anyone who has ever watched CNN while traveling abroad knows that the international coverage it provides is much more nuanced and in-depth everywhere in the world, except here in the U.S.

While the new media environment does allow space for niche outlets like Foreign Policy magazine, which did a great backgrounder on Dagestan in 2011 long before Americans cared, and Global Post, as well as public television programs on PBS like "Great Decisions in Foreign Policy," these outlets largely end up preaching to the choir of those already interested in what happens around the world.

But let's not be too hard on our distracted youth and cynical media. Even our own Secretary of State John Kerry (who sometimes refuses to speak French in Francophone countries for fear of being chastised at home), made quite a gaff in February when, on a tour of Central Asia, he praised U.S. efforts to support democratic reforms in the nonexistent country of Kyrzakhstan. Mon dieu.

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