U.S. West Coast mainland, from north to south: Washington, Oregon, California.

Published in the Westmount Examiner on March 31, 2011.

The recent controversy concerning Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s very public slip-up with regard to precisely which American state is found south of British Columbia is, in fact, no laughing matter (“MacKay gets last laugh after geography blunder”, Gazette, January 28, 2011, A-13). In effect, the Nova Scotia politician’s gaffe could be, unfortunately, only the tip of a much greater information insufficiency on the part of the head of one of the most important ministries in the national government.

During a thirty-five year career in high school education in the Greater Montreal area, I observed many students struggle with the most basic of geographic concepts. Regrettably, the dearth of topographical comprehension usually impinged on other subjects as well, particularly history. As a teacher of both history and geography, I made great efforts throughout my professional life to appreciate the true extent of the problem, and from where it came.

For instance, for the longest time at the very beginning of each academic year, I would hand out to all of my newly-assigned students a simple outline map of North America. It did not include either provincial or state lines, or, as I recall, the rather long border found between Canada and the United States. The Great Lakes, however, were displayed.

In order to assess their basic knowledge of the continent upon which they lived, I would ask the pupils to place numbers on where the following were, more or less, found on the map: Montreal, the St. Lawrence River, Newfoundland, Lake Superior, British Columbia, the Rocky Mountains, Saskatchewan, Hudson Bay, Florida, and California. Interestingly, by far and away the two geographic entities most scholars were successful at accurately situating on the outline map were Florida and California, with no student (as poor as some were) ever placing the latter immediately south of British Columbia. Nevertheless, many were embarrassingly unable to locate their own city (Montreal) on the map and, in general, did quite poorly on the entire pedagogical exercise.

As deplorable as these results may seem to us today, they pale in comparison to an unforgettable occasion in 1992 when, in an alternative school in NDG, I had a sixteen year old boy standing before a very colourful geo-political map of North America which was hanging from the blackboard in the front of the classroom. Imagine my amazement when I suddenly realized that on that larger than life representation the pupil in question was unable to distinguish between the land and the water! Although instinctively a bit   sensitive (from my own experiences in high school) to self – esteem issues, the young man still became quite unsettled, blurting out (as I recall): “Well, why would I want to know that anyway”? Afterward, by way of just one example, I privately attempted to explain to him the importance of being able to read a simple road map if later in life he should decide to take an automobile holiday in unknown turf.

Inadequate knowledge of elementary geography certainly complicates, to say the least, a proper appreciation of the subject matter of history. It would be similar to finding oneself in a chemistry course without ever having been convinced that two and two totals four.  To make matters even worse, numerous adolescents were totally unfamiliar with the very notion of the four cardinal directions as perceived on a map. Therefore, as such, when a high school history teacher attempts to explain by reference to a well-placed map in the front of the class that the European explorers sailed westward across the Atlantic Ocean, a significant number of students would have no idea about what he would be speaking.

Having left the classroom and my vocation nearly five years ago, it is difficult for me to comment as to whether or not the state of affairs concerning this issue has improved in the last little while. Nevertheless, I do know that if the Defence Minister of the country is totally uninformed as to what is found directly south of the nation’s most western province, what are the prospects with regard to his awareness of the geography and history of other states as, for instance, Afghanistan and Libya?