Do We Know Our Fifty Nifty States of America?

By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah

“Fifty nifty United States from thirteen original colonies; Fifty nifty stars in the flag that billows so beautif’ly in the breeze…”

My childhood. Every time I recite this song, it’s more than a song. It’s a triumphant anthem of my vast knowledge of U.S. geography. Yet 75% of our Huskies drown in darkness. 75% of our Huskies don’t know this song by heart. Sad.

Worse still…well, actually, of the 57 students that took a quiz that required them to locate all 50 states on a map, 81% of them got half of the states right. That’s pretty good. 68% of them got ¾ of the states right.

Wait, hold on. What am I doing? This is pointless! Useless! Geography is more than knowing where Rhode Island is on the map. It sounds so simple, but it’s so much more than knowing the difference between Wyoming and Colorado. How about when you are in Wyoming? Where are you really?

Geography and Understanding Your World

I first spoke to Heritage English teacher and 2017/18 Teacher of the Year, Mr. King, about this subject. Being the wise man that he is, King gave me great insight to start my investigation.

“Geography is literally the study of spatial relationships,” King defined. “Your spatial orientation is compromised when you don’t understand where you are in space.”

Humans, young, old, and in between, are always trying to group things together to understand trends. It’s much easier to understand U.S. involvement in the Middle East if it’s compared to your Chick-fil-A sandwich. When you make these connections with places, you’re studying geography.

Sure, but why do I need to understand where Indiana is on the map to avoid “compromising my spatial orientation”? As King warned, when you don’t understand where you are in space, it can have some grave consequences.

Let’s take a 2006 National Geographic survey, for example. The study of 510 young Americans between the ages of 18-24 showed a clouded future for our nation to navigate. When told to evacuate to the Northwest to escape a hurricane heading for City C, one-third of those surveyed went the wrong way. To escape a hurricane!

Sure, this is somewhat alarming, but barring a communications catastrophe, you’ll be told where to go in the event of a hurricane. You’ll be fiiiiine. Agreed. But if you don’t know where to go in the event of a hurricane, you certainly don’t understand why you need to go there. And if you don’t know why, you certainly won’t understand the people who may live in the place that you’re evacuating to. This brings us to our next subject…

Geography and Cultural Understanding

I then spoke to another English teacher and Operation Wisdom advisor Ms. Yates. She defined geography as “the study of humans trying to define and control the land around us.”

That “define” part is super important. We are constantly trying to make sense of our surroundings. We either depend on those surroundings to survive or adapt to fit more harsh surroundings. This is how the unique cultures of the world come to be.

This gives a second dimension to geography: its close connection to culture. Knowing where Minnesota is on the map isn’t just about flexing your wealth of trivia knowledge. To Yates, it’s about understanding why Minnesotans are the way they are.

“You need to know it to have conversations with other people and know what they’re talking about when talking about other places and cultures,” Yates concluded. Everyone notices the differences between people based on what region of the country they come from. It’d be dishonest not to recognize geography’s role in producing these differences.

And this brings us to our third subject.

When Geography Creates War

My final destination was room 2522, the classroom of history teacher Ms. Forner. Like Yates, Forner believes that “where people live informs who they are as a people.”

“When you look at geography,” explained Forner, “you look at cultures. You look at identities of different people. It’s far more encompassing than just boundaries.”

Forner also mentioned “artificially-drawn boundaries.” These are borders of countries that don’t truly reflect the needs of an ethnic group. It’s most present in the African continent. When European nations, starving for colonization, came together at that fateful Berlin Conference of 1883, they “split” Africa up for different nations to colonize different regions.

One big problem, though: Africa’s numberless amount of tribes make it very ethnically diverse. So when you group together enemy tribes within artificial borders, the end result is nothing but total war.

Take the 1994 Rwandan genocide, for example. The undying hatred shared between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes led to the death of 800,000 Rwandans within less than four months. Four.

The nation was left with a gender imbalance because many of those who were killed were men. Single mothers whose husbands perished in the war were left to raise their young with the very, very little they had.

So yeah, geography is somewhat important. No, really important. Crucial. The very basis for our society. Because it truly isn’t about where Vermont is in that soup of states in the Northeast. It’s about where we came from as a people, why we are who we are, talk about what we talk about, do the things we do. Geography is the start to explaining something very complicated: ourselves.

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