Connections: Geography Lesson


There are 35 Middle and Near East countries on a map offered as a free test on the Internet by Rethinking Schools, an organization dedicated to progressive education that publishes a magazine of that name, as well as books designed for, in the organization’s words, “educators who want to enlist students in thinking deeply and critically about the world today.”

Someone forwarded the map to me a few weeks ago, and I took the challenge.

Eventually, through a process of elimination, I managed to drag the names of most of the countries to their proper places on the map, but it wasn’t easy and I was daunted by most of the former Soviet Republic nations, especially those whose last syllable is “stan.” (I was reminded, perhaps inappropriately, of the hilarious “New Yorkistan” map that was on the cover of The New Yorker a few months after 9/11, with Central Parkistan, et cetera.) It was hardly a brilliant showing of geographical knowledge.

That access to the Internet has played a significant role in the stunning emergence of a democracy movement in the Middle East has been widely acknowledged. That the Internet can help educate those of us who don’t know nearly enough about the countries of that region has been less discussed.

Is it possible to have informed opinions about revolution in the Middle East without even being able to identify its countries on a map?

I am quite sure that the general electorate cannot do so, and I’d wager most members of Congress can’t, either. We are stuck with having to rely on what we are told by the White House, the State Department, and those pundits we like because they represent our political persuasions. Given that this country, our allies, and the United Nations are dealing with war and peace — life and death — it is unfortunate that so many of us are in the dark.

A conversation this week with an East Hampton High School teacher put my mind at ease, at least to some degree, about the higher awareness level that is being encouraged there among teen­agers. First of all, the teacher scolded me for suggesting that placing countries in their proper locations on a map meant very much. He called it a game best played by sixth graders. By contrast, he said, New York State’s curriculum on the Mideast is a good one, designed to promote an understanding of each country’s history and resources. If today’s students are able to digest much of what is being taught, he said, they will be able to “intelligently interpret what’s going on.” I hope he is right.

But for those like me, whose schooldays are over and who need remedial help, there is still the Internet. A quick Google search will turn up a number of Web sites with educational games on the Mideast. And the Rethinking Schools map is fun.