This Christmas, Let Children Know Where They Are: Give Them Maps

Terrence Moore

December 1, 2003

The philosopher John Locke set high expectations for children’s early learning, especially in the subject of geography.

“Geography, I think, should be [early] begun with: for the learning of the figure of the globe, the situation and boundaries of the four parts of the world, and that of particular kingdoms and countries, being only an exercise of the eyes and memory, a child with pleasure will learn and retain them; and this is so certain, that I now live in the house with a child whom his mother has so well instructed this way in geography that he knew the limits of the four parts of the world, could readily point, being asked, to any country upon the globe or any county in the map of England, knew all the great rivers, promontories, straits, and bays in the world, and could find the longitude and latitude of any place before he was six years old” (emphasis added).

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant placed a similar primacy on geography.

“There is something in maps which attracts everybody, even the smallest children. When they are tired of everything else, they will still learn something by means of maps. And this is a good amusement for children… We might really begin with geography in teaching children.”

The insights of these two great philosophers of the Enlightenment have apparently been lost on modern schools. Year after year we learn that our students, from grade school through college, lack the merest acquaintance with the places on the globe and even the states of our union, despite all the talk about globalization and the incredible mobility of this nation’s population. In the latest international geographic literacy survey conducted by the National Geographic Society, Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 earned a “D” when compared to their counterparts in other countries. One in ten of those surveyed could not find the good old U.S. of A. on a blank map of the world. Twenty-nine percent could not find the Pacific Ocean. Only 51 percent could identify New York, the third most populous and one of the most distinctive-looking states. Aside from Texas and California, which a majority of young people did recognize, all the other states trailed considerably.

Complacent columnists such as Deborah Mathis of the Chicago Tribune figure young people will learn geography soon enough. Such an attitude is the whole problem with education these days. Schools leave most everything to be picked up later. The buck gets passed from grade to grade. Rather than being embarrassed about what American youths do not know in their twenties, we should, like Locke, be asking what they can and ought to learn at six.

Geography is most definitely a subject that children can learn, ought to learn, and have fun learning. More than any other subject, geography tells us where we are in the world. That matters. Without a sense of place, human beings are quite simply lost. To a large extent, geography is also destiny. The child born in San Diego has a completely different life compared to the child born a few miles south: a different quality of life, a different culture, even a different life expectancy. Geography is also the basis of many of the liberal arts and sciences, namely, history, economics, demography, anthropology, meteorology, and geology. Students who master maps will be led insensibly into these other areas of important knowledge.

The most appealing thing about geography, especially to small children, is that it exists as a great puzzle. It begins with land masses and bodies of water. On the land, we trace mountains and rivers and plains. Then we learn the political divisions—countries and states—followed by important conglomerations of people known as cities. Pretty soon, we can ask the sorts of interesting factual questions that entertain children’s minds. How much more populous is New York than Denver? What percentage of Americans live in the ten largest cities?

For those parents still looking for presents that do not require batteries or assembling and that do not make loud noises, presents that might actually exert a child’s imagination for more than a day, maps remain the old standby.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.