Three out of four Americans couldn't locate the Persian Gulf on a map and most would be lost trying to find Britain, France or Japan.
When these results of a geographic literacy test, conducted by the Gallup Organization, made national headlines during the summer, education experts described American's geographic ignorance as "appalling" and "alarming."A. Richard Longwell, geography professor at Western Illinois University, Macomb, Ill., would agree Americans' geographic knowledge is in a sorry state, but his organization, the National Council for Geographic Education, and three others have formed a coalition dedicated to increasing and improving the teaching of geography in both public and higher education.
The council is conducting a series of workshops and lectures at Snowbird this week. About 500 council members - public schoolteachers and college professors - from the United States and Canada are attending. The conference is hosted by the University of Utah.
"During World War II, most adults could follow the war with a good deal of understanding. That would no longer be true," said Longwell, who is council president.
The slide into geographic ignorance occurred gradually over a long time, but began as a way to make geographic information more meaningful by presenting it in the broader context of social studies. Geography got lost in the shuffle.
"For 30 or 40 years, geography got dissolved into something called `social studies,' and was reduced to things like memorizing state capitals," said Jeanne Kay, U. associate professor of geography and conference program chairwoman.
"The result is that geographic ignorance is a national scandal. People don't know anything about their country, much less the world. They don't have the geographic background to understand a newspaper," Kay said.
Longwell said, "Geography was pushed, nudged, bumped and sometimes completely left out of the curriculum at all levels. As that happened, students didn't study it in elementary school, they didn't study it in junior or senior high school or college."
The geographers said there are no quick fixes, that the solution is in the classroom with trained teachers giving more geography lessons. And those lessons aren't a superficial memorization of facts, but a look at the broad subject of geography that ranges from climate to urban development patterns.
The coalition interested in geographic education has published guidelines for teaching geography from kindergarten through 12th grade. Longwell said it's impossible to generalize about what school districts are now doing, but he is acquainted with numerous individual examples where an the emphasis on geographic education is increasing.
The National Geographic Society has launched its Geographic Alliance Program, which brings leading teachers from each state to Washington, D.C., for training. The alliance then provides grants to help start local alliances.
In Utah, an alliance is headed by Clifford B. Craig, Utah State University professor of geography, and Wayne Wahlquist, Weber State College professor of geography. The alliance has provided in-service workshops for 100 Utah teachers and more will attend this year.
The conference will honor 21 educators nationwide with distinguished teaching achievement awards. Three Utah geography teachers will be included. They are Craig of USU, Glen L. Fagg of Wasatch Junior High School and Kimball W. Hadfield of Kaysville Junior High School.