Op-ed column: Where in the world is that?

As the school year begins anew, I am contemplating all the events of the summer and how world-changi

As the school year begins anew, I am contemplating all the events of the summer and how world-changing this dynamic season has been politically and geographically. And I wonder how these unprecedented changes in the geopolitical structure of the globe will be incorporated in the school curriculum.

Geography quiz

Let’s begin with a September quiz relating to some summer events:

1. A new country was formed in the world on July 9, 2011. Can you name and locate the country?

2. What continent did Mrs. Obama visit during this past summer?

3. Locate the country of Somalia and describe the ongoing human crisis that exists there.

4. What is the capital of Pakistan?

5. What is the “Arab Spring”?

6. In what country was the dictator Moammar Gadhafi deposed?

7. Name and locate the Asian country devastated by a tsunami and still recovering?

8. In what country is President Assad ruthlessly quelling anti-government protests?

9. The month of August marked a sad milestone in the war in Afghanistan. What was it?

(Answers appear at the end of this article)

Could you answer the above questions? And, more importantly, could our school-aged children answer them? The sad part is, we don’t teach much geography in our schools anymore, not to mention current political history.

Unless a teacher incorporates current events into their curriculum in the social studies (if they can find the time), then geopolitical studies aren’t included.

It wasn’t always this way, especially at the high-school level. Prior to the late 1990s a course was taught to all ninth- and 10th-graders in New York state called World Cultures. This course concentrated on the geography, culture and history of continents and countries throughout the world. It was a wonderful course that the students loved. It covered the Middle East, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Europe was included in the 10th-grade curriculum and America in the eleventh.

At the ninth-grade level, the students learned the history and culture of the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The course concentrated on the geography and politics of the countries on these continents as well.

A worthwhile endeavor

It was an up-to-date, interesting and extremely worthwhile endeavor, allowing the students of New York to become very familiar with the world around them. When the course was completed, the students could label a map of Africa (yes, all 50-plus countries), of Asia and Latin America and were well versed in the culture and history of the people there. I know because I taught it for years.

Could you label a map of Africa? of Asia? My students at Shenendehowa could, and so could the students in Burnt Hills, Guilderland, Albany, Scotia, Schenectady and all the schools throughout the state. The better students could do it flawlessly, and they could easily have passed the quiz at the top of this article and them some. It was so satisfying to put a blank map of the world in front of a fourteen-year-old and see him/her eagerly label each country and recite a familiarity with its culture and history. And they were proud to do it!

(A little trick I used was to not demand the memorization of every country in Africa, for example, but only 25 or so. Then I’d give the other countries as extra credit. Those students would eagerly learn the other 25 to get those extra points! And my job was done!)

Curriculum change

So what happened? Sometime in the 1990s the powers that be in the state Education Department decided that the ever-swinging pendulum that is education must swing again and a new curriculum was introduced. Well, actually it was a new-old curriculum. The course was changed to Global Studies, but it was just another name for the old World History course. Kids in the ninth and 10th grades would now take a survey course of the history of the world . . . often the ancient world.

Back we went to Greeks and Romans and ancient Egypt. Oh, it may be a valuable course, but no provisions were made to continue the teaching of the modern non-western world. Students may now be able to discuss and elaborate on the Battle of Troy and the city-states of Carthage and Athens and Sparta, but they might be hard-pressed to find Afghanistan or Iraq on a map. This is very troubling to me and should be to all of us. Especially when the lack of knowledge of the geography and culture of an area can lead us into ill-advised decisions on American policy in these areas.

Perhaps if we had known more about the culture of Iraq, we might have made some different decisions there and certainly would have anticipated more of the Muslim conflict that arose after the fall of Saddam.

The teaching of World History is a valuable tool in the understanding of the modern world, but it certainly cannot replace the teaching of the modern world itself. If we want our students and citizens to make the best decisions and form personal opinions about the world around them, we have to provide the necessary tools. If we don’t know the history and geography of Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, or the countries of Africa, we will never be able to formulate successful foreign policy. I believe I know the solution to our national inadequacies of understanding of the world around us, and it’s a simple one: teach it!

Answers to Quizh

1. Southern Sudan, located in northeast Africa.

2. Africa

3. Somalia is on the Horn of

Africa in the east. The famine there is in epic proportions and aid to the starving is being hindered by terrorists.

4. Islamabad

5. The independence movement spreading through Arab countries to overthrow their governments and institute democracies.

6. Libya

7. Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Its four main islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. The tsunami was in northern Honshu, the main island.

8. Syria

9. With 66 deaths it was the deadliest month for American troops since July 2010.

Anthony Frank lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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