Thursday, February 23, 2012

Geography class

Every once in a while, an article will appear in the paper revealing the results of a study where Americans were asked to demonstrate their geographic knowledge - find Iran on a globe, perhaps, or Chicago on a US map. The point of these articles always seems to be to deliver the shocking news of how geographically illiterate Americans are.

Do you believe that? I always think the study is based on trick questions. or must have a sample size so small that one knucklehead in the bunch skews the results. However....

I recently had a conversation with a young woman of my acquaintance. She had just returned from a trip back east to see relatives who lived in a suburb near New York City. She had never been to New York City before, so, bravely, she took the train into Penn Station and spent the day exploring the city.

She told me that she had taken the subway and gone to visit the World Trade Center memorial. After that she had "gone downtown, to Times Square."

I wasn't quite sure what to say - did she mean directionally "downtown," which of course doesn't make sense? Or conceptually "downtown," as in a dense urban cityscape? Or did she maybe not mean Times Square but some other place?

But, nice person that she is, she actually made an awkward moment easy for me, because she caught herself and said, "That is, I think it's downtown - isn't Times Square downtown?"

"In New York I think the term they use for Times Square is Midtown," I said. "It's 42nd Street, so it's kind of in the middle, north-southwise."

And then we talked of other things.

Meanwhile, I was trying to imagine what it would be like to visit Manhattan without a basic orientation of where you are.

I've always loved looking at maps. As a kid I spent those long car trips following our progress on the map. I never visit a new city without checking a map of the place, and if I don't have a sense of where a city is in relation to states or natural boundaries like rivers and oceans, I feel a little unmoored. If a book I'm reading has a map in it, I always refer back to wayfind while I read. And sometimes if I know a city well enough, I feel as if I have an invisible map-grid in my head as I travel. I can emerge from a subway and, usually within seconds, know which way is North.

This probably runs in the family - my Mom likes to have an atlas by her reading chair, so she can place the geographical location of the events she's reading about.

Some people lack the ability to wayfind. A story recently on NPR featured a woman who was so unable to orient herself she would get lost in her own home if she awoke in the dark of night.  My darling [The Man I Love] has been known to confidently head out in exactly the opposite direction of his destination.  On the rare occasions I'm unable to orient myself, I find it profoundly disturbing.

I don't know whether my friend lacks the ability to wayfind, or whether she simply lacks the interest.  This is the same friend who once asked me whether you could get from Los Angeles to New Orleans by taking a cruise.

But perhaps it's just that she just doesn't see the world as a geographical layout - perfectly valid, and why should I look down on her?

What about you - Are you geographically literate? Are your orientation skills strong? Do you get lost easily? Does it really matter?


smalltownme said...

I'm a lot like you: love maps, have a good since of direction, and hate it when I am disoriented.

déjà pseu said...

I'm a total map geek. Le monsieur teases me about it, but I could sit and look at maps for *hours*. I usually have a pretty good sense of direction too, unless I'm in a new place, coming up from underground and it's cloudy or dark.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

When I was employed at last in New York (the g.f. and I moved to Queens and then began searching for work...made for some tough times), we moved below 42nd Street specifically so that we'd no longer have to go through Grand Central when commuting to lower Manhattan.

It's hard to imagine looking at any subway map and not seeing that North is up. But kudos to your acquaintance for exploring!

littlemama said...

When I first read your post, I thought,"cut her some slack....I'd probably say the same thing in New York City." In my not-so-small hometown, "Downtown" is the part of town that's the center of commerce with all the tall buildings. If you look at a map, technically it's "midtown" but no one calls it that.

But then I read the part where she asked if you could take a cruise to New Orleans, and I felt a little less sypmathetic.

Personally, my internal compass usually gets me where I need to go. Lately, however, I've learned that the Japanese have very different ideas when it comes to city planning, and my compass lets me down more often than I'm used to!

Gilly said...

I LOVE maps, I enjoy finding my way by map - and if I have nothing to read, there is always a map! And I'm like your Mother - I try to have a map of wherever the action is taking place.

However, I must admit to not knowing where all the US States are - the well known ones I know, like Ca, NY the New England States,, the ones that border the Gulf of Mexico, but I get a bit muddled in the middle!

Anonymous said...

On a car trip when I was about 9 or 10, my Dad handed me a map. He showed me where we were and where we were going and the roads we needed to travel on. I was to tell him when he needed to turn and which way. I became the navigator. I loved it, it gave me a sense of importance and a lifelong skill.
I too love maps and have to have one wherever we travel.


Gary's third pottery blog said...

Interesting and correct point about downtown here in comments above. I can see that mentality. But I am amazed these days, nobody is looking at maps before setting out, to get a general idea of the whole trip, the whole area, just following the stupid gps, not realizing that it may not take you the correct way or that another way might be better or even having a sense of where things lie in relation to each or general directions. BUT, then again, I love maps too :)

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Map lovers unite! My husband has the GPS and there I am right beside him with my trusty map often finding a better route. I love getting maps before trips, planning out the route, getting a lay of the land. I still have my trusty folding pocket NYC map that I pull out for every trip.

Cassi Renee said...

I have very little natural sense of direction, but perhaps for that reason I love maps. I certainly use my GPS, but I love to have the map out to see the bigger picture.

However, I can assure you that most of the kids today coming from public schools have NO mastery of geography. I teach geology, but geography plays a big role in the course content, and most of my students have no idea where anything is, even their own home state!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

When looking for a new place, I need to closely look at any and all maps to get a sense of how to get there, what it will look like, and more. While I often use the computer these days, I still want to have a hands-on map. However, I easily get turned around and confused, so I probably need that time with the map.

I loved homeschooling my son in 3rd and 4th grade because we really worked with geography. It's a skill that just isn't taught and learned these days.