Nfld. & Labrador

Where in the world is common sense?

Students not being able to identify the continents is one thing, Heather Barrett writes, but the glaring lack of curiosity about the world is another.

The first thing I did after I heard CBC reporter Caroline Hillier's excellent story on the St. John's Morning Show about some Memorial University students' appalling lack of geographical knowledge was grab a map of the world and my 13-year-old son.

"Where's Newfoundland? Where's Africa? Where's the Atlantic Ocean?" I interrogated.

When I got into work later that morning, I discovered I wasn't the only parent in the newsroom who gave their unsuspecting youngsters a snap geography quiz at the breakfast table.

Here at the CBC, we've been mulling over why, exactly, so many students could make it to university and be so clueless about world geography. 

We've heard from academic experts who have talked about changing approaches to teaching geography.

You have weighed in with hundreds of comments on our website, with many of you pointing a finger at today's education system as the culprit. 

Some of my colleagues speculated that students may have learned some world geography in school, but have forgotten it by the time they hit post-secondary education. 

Others suggested that, now that there's reams of information available on the internet, we assumed kids knew their geography, courtesy of Google Maps, and we put less focus on teaching it. 

Here's what I think, and this may be an unpopular thing to say:

A lot of people out there are simply not that curious about the rest of the world. 

A 'general knowledge' gap?

Caroline and I had a chat about this in the newsroom.

As journalists, we are people who, by nature, are interested in what's happening anywhere and everywhere. 

Because birds of a feather flock together, many of our friends and family members have similar inclinations. So we spend a lot of time with people, who, regardless of their formal education levels, have at least a passing familiarity with the world, from Muskrat Falls to Mumbai. They have what my grandmother used to call "general knowledge."

Then, I cast my mind back to the pre-internet days of the late 1980s, during my time at Memorial University.

I remember meeting some students who did very well in their courses. They went to every class. They took notes. They studied. They got excellent grades.

But when it came to the rest of the world, that was their world. They were at university to get  their degrees, and hopefully afterwards, jobs.

Outside of class, they were pre-occupied with their friends, and what they might do that weekend. You and I know this: when you're young, the world is about you. 

People change

To be fair to some of the students I encountered at Memorial in the '80s, and the ones Caroline encountered earlier this week, everyone evolves. 

Over time, people find jobs, take on mortgages, have families. Suddenly, what's going on in their community becomes more important to them. They start paying attention to the news, join a book club, do some travelling. Those gaps on the map start filling in.

And, as one of my well-read colleagues pointed out, there are different pools of knowledge.  He figured there are men out there who would poke fun at his lack of ability to do basic repairs on his car. Being able to point out the Atlantic Ocean on a map might not, for them, be a requirement for a well-rounded life.

Broaden your horizons

I have to admit, though, I'm impatient with people, such as that student in Caroline's story, who actually travelled to Spain but can't find it on a map. 

It's not lack of map-reading ability that bugs me about people. 

It's their lack of ability to travel, in their mind's eye, to a place or a situation that is beyond their immediate surroundings. To put themselves in someone else's shoes. To compare other places and ideas to their world. 

Having the courage to seek out new experiences helps us create, invent, make our small corner of the planet a better place.

I'm not sure if you learn how to do that in a classroom.

I think it's up to all of us make the effort to pick it up in the school of life.