I’ve been working on maps recently. It all started with Lara Trump. A few weeks ago she suggested that the average American would need to Google “Who are the Kurds, and why is America even over there fighting this war?” I was righteously offended by this comment, until I realized that in my case she was correct. I really couldn’t have shown you where Kurdistan was on a map.
My knowledge of world geography is not strong. And I think it’s gotten worse, in many ways, with the advent of the internet. With the availability of Google Earth and GPS and map programs, I no longer need to have a mental framework to picture where things are. I simply type an address and hit GO. The result has been a strangely disconnected sense of place. I no longer get lost, and I can always see where some city or place is, but I often have no idea of how things really relate to each other, how they connect. It wasn’t always this way.
As a child, my friend Piers was sent to an exclusive English boarding school. There he endured the usual privations of an elite British education: short trousers, Latin lessons, a giant rolling toaster turning out an unending stream of burnt toast. Most of this I view with healthy skepticism. However, there was one feature of his education that I think they got spot on. That had to do with the punishment meted out for bad behavior.
At this school, they didn’t use the cane. And they didn’t make students write out lines – “I will not talk in class” one hundred times or some such. Instead, students who got into trouble for breaking the rules were required to draw maps. Freehand. They would be given a particular part of the world, and told to reproduce a map with a certain number of countries, including a specified quantity of cities, rivers, roads and assorted other geographical features. Grab an atlas and get to work. The more often you got into trouble, the more maps you drew.
For what it’s worth, Piers became very good at geography. Years later, he was still able to reproduce from memory impressively detailed maps of Africa and South America.
I’ve decided that if I’m ever going to improve my grasp of geography, I need to be more like Piers. So this last month, I have started to draw maps.
My first attempts have been with the middle east. I’m spending time memorizing a map of that region. Now when I sit down in a coffee shop, I pull out a napkin and draw a rough map of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. I have the artistic ability of a tree stump – so my paper looks like a bunch of boxes stacked on top of each other. But still it’s starting to make sense. There’s Turkey – a big rectangle at the top. Syria runs into the bottom of the box, with Iraq off to the side, a smallish triangle shape with a much bigger box next to it with Iran written across it. I’ve got a finger of water near the bottom of the napkin marked Gulf, and a big patch on the left of the napkin with the Mediterranean on it. Then, to complete my efforts, I draw a rough circle in a dotted line around parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq – and shade it in to represent Kurdish territory. It’s a terrible map, I realize. But for the first time I am finding my bearings in the middle east.
I’m trying the same with Elkhart. With the elections coming up, I’ve tried to learn the boundaries of our six electoral districts. That’s a challenging map to draw – in many ways more complicated than the middle east. If you don’t believe me, check out the shape of District Four. It looks like a melted tennis racket.
I’m not proud of my lack of geographical sense. But I’m determined to get better. And I’m reminded that knowing maps is not the end of the process, but the beginning of something more important.
As a former president put it:
The study of geography is about more than just memorizing places on a map. It's about understanding the complexity of our world, appreciating the diversity of cultures that exists across continents. And in the end, it's about using all that knowledge to help bridge divides and bring people together. (Barack Obama)
So go on, Michiana, draw a map this week. And then use your knowledge to bring people together.
Music: Theme from "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego"