Where in the world is … Tunisia?

Brian Harper

The first question I asked myself after hearing about the recent wave of political protests in Tunisia was probably the same many Americans asked: where is Tunisia?

I quickly wrote off my ignorance and decided there is a good reason for my not knowing.

“If Tunisia were that big of a deal,” I told myself, “it would have been featured more prominently in the news before these protests. Is it even an ally of the United States? Apparently not a very important one.”

This attitude reveals more than arrogance; it demonstrates a troubling deficiency in my knowledge of the world beyond my own surroundings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be my problem alone.

In 2006, National Geographic conducted a geographic literacy survey that polled 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. The results were startling. Despite three years of war, 63 percent of respondents could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, while 88 percent could not identify Afghanistan on a map of Asia. More than half did not know that Sudan was in Africa, and 70 percent could not locate North Korea on a map.

A number of factors could explain our geographic naiveté, but the fact that less than three in ten respondents found it absolutely necessary to know where countries in the news are located might give us a place to start.

“Young Americans just don’t seem to have much interest in the world outside of the U.S.,” remarked a specialist who works for National Geographic.

I am not smart enough to diagnose the root of this carelessness, but I worry it is based on the false assumption that anything that does not entertain us or affect our lives in a direct way is of little, if any, importance. We may not know Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most prominent language, but we do know our factory jobs are going to China. We might not be able to find Iran on a map, but we know their president is our sworn enemy. And though we may not know how to spell Kazakhstan, we do know how to spell Kardashian.

On one of my first days studying abroad at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, I met one of the leaders of the school’s student government. I was stunned when he began quoting President Bush’s speech on Sept. 11, as well as President Obama’s speech after winning the 2008 Election.

I was also embarrassed. Despite undergoing months of preparation for my time abroad, I knew very little of his country’s history besides the role Nelson Mandela played in it. I certainly couldn’t quote specific speeches Mandela made.

Given our dominant role on the international stage, it would be easy for us as Americans to justify our ignorance of the world relative to the world’s knowledge of the U.S. After all, we call the shots. It makes sense that the rest of the world should know what we’re up to.

This outlook, however, fails to recognize the deep and far-reaching effects globalization has afforded us. We are connected to the rest of the world in ways few of us can fully fathom, from the shoes we wear and coffee we drink to the cell phones we carry and the tweets we post.

There are obvious perks to a better understanding of the outside world. With competition for work extending beyond our borders, global awareness could make the difference for American job seekers.

More important than these practical benefits, however, are the human ones. The keener our understanding of Haiti’s struggles to overcome poverty, the deeper our compassion will be should the country suffer another environmental catastrophe. The more extensive our knowledge of the genocide in Darfur, the more profound our outrage will be each time the Sudanese government violates human rights. Put simply, the more we desire to comprehend the world we live in, the better we are as people.