2006 National Geographic Roper


Americans are far from alone in the world, but from the perspective of many young Americans, we might as well be. Most young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 demonstrate a limited understanding of the world, and they place insufficient importance on the basic geographic skills that might enhance their knowledge.

Young Americans answer about half (54 percent) of all the survey questions correctly. But by and large, majorities of young adults fail at a range of questions testing their basic geographic literacy.

  • Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.
  • 6 in 10 young Americans don't speak a foreign language fluently.
  • 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It's the largest country in Africa.)
  • 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It's Hindu—by a landslide.)
  • Half of young Americans can't find New York on a map.

These results suggest that young people in the United States—the most recent graduates of our educational system—are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Far too many lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events.


National Geographic and leading education, business, and nonprofit partners have launched My Wonderful World, a campaign to increase global learning in school, at home, and in the community. With the help of parents, teachers—and you—we can help give our youth the power of global knowledge. Because kids who understand our world today can succeed in it tomorrow.

About the Survey

The findings presented are the results of a face-to-face survey conducted from December 17, 2005, to January 20, 2006, by Roper Public Affairs and Media, a part of GfK NOP. Interviews were conducted among a nationwide representative sample of 510 adults age 18-24 in the continental United States. Data were weighted for sample balancing by sex and age. The margin of error for the total sample is +/- 4.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. The margin of error for subgroups is higher. Because of rounding, numbers may not total 100 percent.

This study is the latest in a series of surveys commissioned by the National Geographic Society. The most recent prior survey was conducted among nine nations in 2002.

Bijal P.Trivedi
National Geographic Today
November 20, 2002

In a nation called the world's superpower, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, according to a new worldwide survey released today.
The young U.S. citizens received poor marks generally in geography. But then, as results showed, their counterparts in other countries were hardly star students.
The National Geographic–Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey polled more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States.
Sweden scored highest; Mexico, lowest. The U.S. was next to last.
"The survey demonstrates the geographic illiteracy of the United States," said Robert Pastor, professor of International Relations at American University, in Washington, D.C. "The results are particularly appalling in light of September 11, which traumatized America and revealed that our destiny is connected to the rest of the world."
About 11 percent of young citizens of the U.S. couldn't even locate the U.S. on a map. The Pacific Ocean's location was a mystery to 29 percent; Japan, to 58 percent; France, to 65 percent; and the United Kingdom, to 69 percent.

Are Young U.S. Citizens Americentric?
Despite the threat of war in Iraq and the daily reports of suicide bombers in Israel, less than 15 percent of the young U.S. citizens could locate either country.
More young U.S. citizens in the study knew that the island featured in last season's TV show "Survivor" is in the South Pacific than could find Israel.
Particularly humiliating was that all countries were better able to identify the U.S. population than many young U.S. citizens. Within the U.S., almost one-third said that population was between one billion and two billion; the answer is 289 million.
"It gives the sense that there is this Americentric thing going on—that we are big and powerful and have all these people in our country," said John Fahey, President and CEO of the National Geographic Society.

On the other hand, Pastor suggests that the results could mean that most young Americans just have no idea of the total world population (about six billion).

Poor Geographic Literacy Worldwide

Young adults worldwide are not markedly more literate about geography than the Americans.

On average, fewer than 25 percent of young people worldwide could locate Israel on the map. Only about 20 percent could identify hotspots like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

Of all the young adults in the survey, only about one-third in Germany, Sweden and Japan could name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons. In the rest of the countries, that number dropped to less than a quarter. In France, 24 percent did not know that that their own country was a nuclear nation.

The survey results are not all bleak, says Roger Downs, head of the geography department at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, and a National Geographic geographer-in-residence in 1995-1996.

Geography Not Valued in Schools

Since the last Geographic-sponsored survey in 1988, said Downs, the percentage of young U.S. citizens who reported taking a geography course in school rose from 30 to 55 percent. And students who had studied geography did better on the current survey.

U.S. schools generally have slighted geography. "If geography is not in the curriculum," Downs said, "it's not tested—and that says to the students that it is not valued."

The schools are not solely to blame, either. "Wouldn't it be nice if parents also read atlases to their children?" Downs says.

Questions covering current events or practical activities yielded more promising results.

Most young U.S. citizens knew that Africa was most affected by the AIDS epidemic, and about half knew that El Niño caused erratic weather.

"When geography and life intersect, people pay attention," said Nick Boyon, senior vice president for international research at Roper ASW, in Manhattan.

Boosting Geography

Geographic knowledge increases through travel and language proficiency, among other factors.

In the highest-scoring countries—Sweden, Germany and Italy—at least 70 percent of the young adults had traveled internationally in the last three years, and the majority spoke more than one language (in Sweden, 92 and 89 percent, respectively).

In the U.S. and Mexico, only about 20 percent had traveled abroad during the same period, and the majority spoke only one language.

To fight geographic ignorance, and apathy, among young people in the U.S. and around the world, the National Geographic Society will convene an international coalition of leaders in American business, education and media. Next year the panel will recommend initiatives to policymakers in those areas—and to parents and children.

Men Outperform Women, Despite Education Parity

Roper Poll 2006

As in the 2002 National Geographic survey, young men answer more questions correctly than young women do, despite both groups having very similar education levels and recent Internet access. Women place more importance on Internet and foreign language skills, but they say they know less than average about geography (45%, vs. 36% of men). From the total of 53 factual questions, men got an average of 30.2 answers right, versus 27.0 correct for women. Looking at specific types of questions, there is no significant difference between women's and men's performance on questions requiring map reading skills, and they give similar answers, both right and wrong ones, on a majority of the factual questions.

Yet men score better on matching countries with their continent, and on finding countries on the Asia, Middle East and world maps. For instance, 17% of men get all four countries included in this survey on the Middle East map right, compared to 11% of women.

Young Adults Don’t Fare Much Better at Home

Young Americans' knowledge of the geography of the United States is only marginally better than their knowledge of other countries around the globe. Each of the participants in this survey was shown a map of the continental United States, the same map used in the 2002 and 1988 surveys, and asked to identify seven states. On average, young Americans can accurately locate about half (3.4) of these states. One in five (20%) get all seven right, and just 3% can't find any of these states on the map.