Where In The World?! National Geography Week aims to reacquaint Americans with the globe

November 14, 1990|By Jean Marbella

There's something so quaint about geography. It recalls schoolday projects of building papier-mache volcanoes, of coloring maps so hard that the paper became bumpy with waxy crayon buildup.

But then one day -- long after you'd given up crayons for computers -- you woke up and realized you'd forgotten which is latitude and which is longitude.

"Geography illiteracy," as it's called, doesn't just afflict those long past their schooldays: A recent test of U.S. high school students, for example, found that 63 percent couldn't find Southeast Asia on a map and 32 percent thought Finland had a tropical or desert climate.

But all is not lost. Some believe the tumultuous world events of the past year have sparked a renewed interest in geography and maps. And others are working to combat geography illiteracy -- by offering a toll-free information number, for one, and by naming this National Geography Week.

A person gets lost while driving and stops to ask for directions.

Male or female?

A person is given three seconds to estimate the distance of the opposite wall and is way off base.

Male or female?

A person is asked to point northward, then is made to face another direction and asked again to point northward and each time points a different way.

Male or female?

If the small body of scientific research and the much larger body of personal observations are any indication, the answer to all three would have to be "female."

One of the ever fewer remaining distinctions between men and women, it seems, involves real-life (as opposed to memorize-the-state-capitals-style) geography.

It's all about spatial skills -- how we imagine and cope with the three-dimensional world around us. Spatial skills are also why some people are good parallel parkers, or can buy furniture without first measuring it to see if it will fit its intended space.

The data to date indicates men as a group tend to be better at these skills than their female counterparts (or maybe they're just loath to admit otherwise, as with the man who refuses to stop and ask directions).

Perhaps spatial skills are something men are born with or something they develop under society's encouragement. Maybe they're better at them because they're the ones who largely got to plot out the physical world as we know it today.

But there are exceptions to every rule: Not every man is a map whiz, not every woman a map wimp.

"When you compare men and women on any trait at all -- generosity, compassion, spatial skills, anything -- you find overlap," said psychologist John Sappington of Augusta College in Georgia, a researcher of gender differences. "The literature is controversial on this, but men as a group have an edge on tests involving spatial ability."

There are several possible explanations for this, he said, none of which have been entirely proven.

One involves the right brain-left brain duality, in which the right is responsible for spatial skills and the left for verbal ability. The theory, then, is that men are more right-brain oriented and women are more left-brain oriented.

Another theory gaining adherents is that boys are more often involved in sports from an early age than girls. Boys therefore have an edge on measuring distances and estimating trajectories, both of which involve spatial skills.

"Ball sports give you very direct experience with spatial skills," said Janet Hyde, professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin. "Also, there are other games boys tend to play -- erector sets in my generation, Legos today -- that also are all about spatial skills.

"What this means is that you can train spatial ability," she added. "That's very clear."

Indeed, practice does make perfect. Even if you have a bad sense of direction, the more you drive and the more you're forced to read maps, the better you become at it. And a suburbanite who moves to the city can become quite the parallel parker.

But as for the stereotypical male who resists asking for directions when lost, well, that might not change because that's not a factor of spatial skills.

"Men value independence and personal competence, and this is especially true when they're inside their cars," said Mr. Sappington. "It's an arena in which they have total control, and to ask directions is to show dependency."

And, of course, everyone knows exceptions -- women who can navigate uncharted waters, men who can't drive their way out of a paper bag.

"Some people," Mr. Sappington said, "are just lost in space."

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