Harvard students pull epic fail in geography

Still for Harvard Crimson video. Apparently crimson for a reason...

Still from Harvard Crimson video. Apparently crimson for a reason…

As reported in today’s Ottawa Citizen, a roving reporter for the Harvard Crimson had little trouble discovering an awkward lack of geo/political awareness among some students on campus.

Confronted with the challenge of naming the capital of Canada, only one could get it right.

And that student was… Canadian.

Here’s the video that went along with the question.

The poor dears.

In some respects, stories like these are too easy. Who doesn’t like to poke fun at Ivy Leagues and feel equal-to or better-than, given the chance? So I’ll come clean and admit that when my own family first considered a job transfer to Ottawa, we had to look it up on a map. We knew it was in Ontario, and it was the capital, but the “where is that?” part was decidedly fuzzy. (Sort of like Canberra. Which is somewhere in Australia, obviously. But where, exactly?)

So, here’s my question, or several questions. What’s happening? Is this state of affairs because schools don’t require that sort of rote memorization anymore? Is it because of smart phones and search engines? (Why clutter your head with details that are one click away?)  And does it signify? Is it that important to carry basic facts in your own brain cells, or is that sort of subject mastery not worth much anymore?

For anyone who would enjoy reviewing this topic here’s a list of world capitals, a list of U.S. state capitals (also in quiz form) and of Canadian provincial capitals.

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17 Comments on “Harvard students pull epic fail in geography”

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  1. Mervel says:

    I do not think it is being taught at the earlier grades as it should be. I would like to think that at least. More troubling is just that people have become uninterested in the real physical world around them, instead they stare at screens and become even more parochial than before, yet thinking they are worldly.

    Canada is our largest trading partner, the second or third largest oil producer in the world, and our closest ally both culturally and politically, yet many Americans are woefully ignorant about Canada, I don’t understand? I mean more people in the US know about this drunk mayor from Toronto than about Canada or the Capital.

  2. Ellen Rocco says:

    This one really surprised me. We are such a wealthy nation–but we are not proportionately well-informed. I meet people from a variety of African and Asian nations–people who grew up poor or barely middle class–who are so much better informed about world and US politics and geography. Bring back Carmen Sandiego!

  3. newt says:

    No, Geography is not taught much any more in schools, which is a shame. Part of this is the over attention to math and ELA at the expense of other subjects; also the belief that in skills, rather than knowledge. As on the SATs . If I were Education Czar, I would make every kid entering college (and the military) take a test on basic knowledge requiring rote memorization of certain facts. The test given to be U.S. Citizenship applicants could be part of it, but also a world history and geography component. You could not be a total ignoramus about the world and get into any desirable life choice, if I had my way. Though I’m not sure the capital of Canada would make it onto my test prep study list.

    Having said that, I think the “Taking Canada for Granted” syndrome is present here. The NY state Social Studies Curriculum, at least in my day, required studying of the US, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. I don’t recall any place for Canada on the curriculum, though I think it was once. Not exactly a global hotspot, Canada. There probably should be, at least in NYS.

  4. The Original Larry says:

    Sadly, nobody values knowledge for its own sake. It seems as if nothing matters but standardized tests. We are all too familiar with the results of that way of thinking.

  5. For once, I agree with OLarry. If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not worthy. That seems to be the conventional wisdom (sic) in education today. As someone with a bachelor’s degree in math, I know the folly of this mentality. I know the value of numbers but I also understand their limitations.

    As for this particular story, I’d bet anything that the Crimson interviewed lots of students who gave the right answer. Those didn’t get shown, except for the Canadian student, because it didn’t fit the humorous narrative they wanted. Canadian media outlets have done this exact type of “Americans are ignorant about Canada” story for years and that’s how they do it: cherry picking the dumbest answers.

    (By the way, I can name the capitals of all 50 US states and 13 Canadian provinces and territories. I can probably name a higher percentage of provincial premiers than state governors. We’re not all ignorant but that doesn’t fit the party line)

  6. Pete Klein says:

    There is an ad on TV for smart phones that shows a kid receiving news that his pet dog at home is sick and he asks the cell phone for the best way to get home.
    Is there anyone in addition to me who wonders how stupid is this kid if he needs to ask the cell phone how to get home? Doesn’t he know where home is, how he got to where he now is and how he can go back home the same way he got to where he now is?
    There is nothing wrong with technology but if you depend upon it to do everything, you might as well get prepared to become obsolete.
    Speaking of geography, its importance is greater than most realize. NYC is a major city because of its geography. The Adirondacks is what it is because of its geography. Even the Native Americans thought the Adirondacks was a nice place to visit for hunting and fishing. In terms of day to day living, they chose the river valleys and plains.

  7. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Seems unfair to just ask students. I want to see the professors – wait, do they still have professors? – the teaching assistants answer.

  8. Paul says:

    newt, my younger son has been doing lots of geography in school. What are your comments based on? BTW he is doing very well.

  9. The Original Larry says:

    That’s interesting , Paul, and I’m glad to hear it. What grade level is it being taught at and what sort of geography is it? Is it part of another course or a subject on its own? I would have guessed it wasn’t being taught but maybe students just aren’t learning.

  10. Jane W says:

    Reminds me of a comedy bit on Jay Leno many years ago where he asked people where Ottawa was. Most people didn’t know and one person was sure it didn’t exist!

  11. shovel says:

    Tried this question on my fairly well informed 16 yo and did not get a correct answer. This, after we had vacationed in Ottawa this summer!

  12. Canadian provincial and territorial capitals (w/o looking on Google) in a counterclockwise fashion (also w/o Googling): Victoria, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Toronto, Quebec City, Halifax, Fredericton, Charlottetown, St John’s, Yellowknife and Whitehorse. The national capital is of course Ottawa. Sorry I forget the capital of Nunavut territory… Nunavik, maybe?

    I can pretty much guarantee if the Crimson had asked me, my answer wouldn’t have been used in the video. I don’t fit the stereotype.

  13. Lucy Martin says:

    Good try on Nunavut’s capital, but it’s Iqaluit.

    Spelling is my downfall, among other things. So I must frequently look up such places, if only to verify that.

  14. Robin says:

    Anyone who isn’t from Scotland and says, “Does it signify?” instead of “Is it important?” is awesome! Thanks, Lucy, for keeping that wonderful use of the word alive!

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Quick, name 3 capital cities in Africa.

  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    While you’re at it name 3 in Asia, but not in Israel where you could eat up 2 at once. (yes, Israelis are Asians)

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Don’t feel bad Canada, we only remember the names of places we send our troops to fight and die.

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