When we talk about “distortion” in relation to the world map, we generally mean the Mercator projection. You know, that method of reconciling two-dimensional representation with three-dimensional reality by stretching things out more and more toward the north and south poles.
But for me, map distortion is a more personal matter.
Maybe I missed the developmental window during which geography is best absorbed; Berkeley public schools were never known for rigorous drill and practice. Or maybe I was born with some devilish cognitive glitch. All I know is, I never seem to get oriented (or, for that matter, occidented). And no, I’m decidedly not smarter than a fifth grader.
I’m one of those people who mix up Libya and Liberia, who intuit Africa and South America as similarly equatorial, who don’t know how the –istan countries all fit together. It’s actually worse than I’m saying, and for most of my life, I’ve felt so embarrassed by my difficulty that at this point, I don’t know how much of it stems from inability, and how much from anxiety over what feels to me like an infinity of ignorance.
There are excellent articles out there about the importance of geography education, like blogger Mr. D’s “It’s right there on the map!”–
No explanation, though, of what you’re supposed to do if you’re a functioning adult who’s part of the problem. I mean, we all know what Sarah Palin should do, but what about someone like me? And did I mention my brain is aging?
Oh, I’ve tried. I mounted a world map in my kitchen, apparently too close to the Teflon (nothing sticks). I’ve traveled, but have trouble retaining what I learn. In my thirties, I made myself sit down and memorize the U.S. map, after which I delighted in my complete mastery over it. But a few weeks later, I was back to square one. Wherever that is.
Please, no links to those upside-down world maps.
While a physicist can be forgiven for putting an ice cream cone directly into his pocket—while sports ignorance is almost a badge of honor among classical musicians—geographical cluelessness isn’t remotely cute in a writer. It’s no fun having to stop and check while trying to take in the newspaper, let alone a challenging book. It’s hard to absorb and integrate history, and learning can be so slow and painful for me that at times, I’ve wanted to give up reading—kind of ill-advised in my line of work.
Why didn’t I sign up for a remedial geography course years ago? Well, I couldn’t bear calling attention to my difficulty when everyone seemed to view me as a good student. I couldn’t admit I was in reality the type that teachers are always up in arms about: They don’t even know the basics!
We’ve come a long way in outreach to illiterate people, but it seems we still have work to do in other areas. What if geography education were grounded in humility (there’s a lot we don’t understand about how people learn) rather than hand-wringing and derision?
Published in The Piedmont Post, March 31, 2010