Americans are map morons — so what?

Sometimes, my carefree attitude and positive outlook on life make me forget how dangerous and worrisome the world can be. Luckily, I go back home every now and then, where my mother keeps me apprised of the dangers that I and, by extension, the American people face. Last week, I was told that I should worry about eating too much sugar, terrorism happening in Grand Central Station, eating too much starch, visiting certain parts of Brooklyn, going outside in such a light jacket and riding the subway at night. In addition to this litany, which was addressed directly to my devil-may-care attitude, was a more general worry about the nation as a whole.

Over dinner Wednesday, Mom told me about a study in which American youth were found to be seriously lacking in geographical knowledge. She specifically mentioned that 70 percent of those surveyed could not find New Jersey on a map (I didn’t make the obvious crack that finding New Jersey would be much easier with a scratch ‘n sniff map).

I took a look into the study to see just how ignorant Americans were. Here’s the run-down: The National Geographic Society surveyed people between the ages of 18 and 24. They found that in terms of geographic knowledge, only Mexicans knew less. A third of Americans couldn’t even find the Pacific Ocean.

All of this worrying about the state of the American educational system (unlike my mom’s concern about my choice of coat) are widely echoed. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written his last few columns on the impact of a rapidly growing China. In one such column, entitled “China’s Super Kids,” Kristof wrote about his visit to a private school in Shanghai. After the breathless descriptions of high schoolers aceing the GREs, the coup de grace: They’re so well behaved.

A decade ago, I remember watching more than one PBS documentary about schoolchildren in Japan who behaved like perfect worker bees, harmoniously cleaning up after themselves. After regular school, which was longer and much more advanced than in America, many of these perfect little scholars went to “cram schools” until the wee hours, where they received additional instruction in preparation for high-stakes college entrance exams. The insinuation was that, as an American, I had it easy.

When the Cold War was at its height, the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik produced much hand wringing and attempts to improve what was seen as a weak science education curriculum in American schools. Japanese and Russians are no longer seen as having systems worth emulating. Japan has been in and out of recession and bank crisis for more than a decade and Russia is careening toward third-world levels of destitution and crime. Of all countries, only the United States, with its ramshackle localized education system, still stands as an economic and military superpower. Our fears were misplaced.

Does this mean that we don’t need to invest in education? Of course not; schools must become a path out of poverty and a source of skilled workers. The point is that there is something else that determines a nation’s success, and it has nothing to do with what we can find on a map. Those kids in Shanghai were taking the GREs because the SAT is not offered in China, and they need a score to send to American universities. Many want to come here, as do the best and brightest of many other countries.

Why? Shanghai high schoolers want to live in America not just because this is where the jobs are. In America, you don’t need to bribe anyone to get permission to move to a different city. In America, the government doesn’t block your access to certain news and religion Web sites. Although our supply of educated workers is a factor, we are successful because we are the freest nation in the world.

Even if we can’t find it on a map, we are still a city on a hill.

Charles Donefer is a student at Johns Hopkins University.