Vakil: Northwestern should mandate a geography course for all students


Caroline Vakil, Columnist

When I told friends and family that I would be going on a school-sponsored trip to Qatar this Spring Break, a few of them had no idea where Qatar was located on a map. One or two hadn’t even heard of the country. Although there are 196 countries in the world, I was surprised so few people had heard of Qatar, especially since it won its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and is a key player in the oil industry.

America’s lack of awareness of other countries is not unique to Qatar, unfortunately. Overall, Americans are geographically illiterate in a crucial time period where globalization is rapidly changing the way we interact with the rest of the world. In a 2006 National Geographic Study, 37 percent of American youth could locate Iraq on a map despite the fact that America was fighting in the Iraq War. The study also conveyed how geographically illiterate Americans were in their own country — only half of young Americans knew where New York was on a map.

A major cause for this gap in education is geography is not always a part of a school’s curriculum. If students know little about a subject matter they aren’t tested on, they risk making a dangerous assumption that the subject doesn’t matter. Because our world is becoming increasingly globalized, we cannot continue to excuse students’ lack of geographical knowledge.

So many of the jobs young people will take on require international interaction. Economists need to know how different economies function in other countries. Politicians need to understand how different political systems work. Journalists need to have an understanding of the countries they report on since so much American news is centered around foreign affairs and events. American businesses rely on foreign businesses such as manufacturing since the products are often sold into a global market. If we lack even basic knowledge about how other countries operate, we risk losing our voice in global affairs and distancing ourselves from the world we live in.

Geography also helps us understand history. Many historical disputes are derived from geography, whether they be conflicts over drawing borders or over resources. Take the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Years of geographical disputes can shape the history of a country and its interactions with other countries. However, these disputes cannot be understood and appreciated if the geographical context of these areas are ignored.

Most importantly, though, students should have an understanding of geography because we need to be active members of the world we live in. We need to be globally conscious citizens who see beyond our American citizenship and think about how our actions affect the rest of the world. We don’t need to embrace an isolationist America. We need to become an active country that genuinely wants to work with the rest of the world.

Northwestern students would benefit from a course in geography in order to counteract the issue of geographical illiteracy. Taking language courses is a step in the right direction, but geography courses are essential since they provide historical, environmental and political context to the foreign affairs of the countries we study in other classes. Geography classes are applicable to any field you go into and encourage a cultural awareness of areas unlike your own.
If college is to prepare us in any way for life after college, it is by providing us with a global education.

Caroline Vakil is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.