Friday, April 1, 2011

Guest Blog: The Importance of Understanding Geography and Cultural Differences

This week's post comes from our first Guest Blogger - Linda Williams, of the Connecticut State Library. Enjoy!

As a librarian serving children’s and teen librarians in Connecticut, and a staunch believer in the power of stories to teach, entertain, and generally broaden perspectives, I often find myself compiling lists of books that I hope will be used to this end.

I also serve as a co-representative to the Collaborative Summer Library Program, a collaborative of 49 states which plans and administers a theme-based library summer reading program. This year’s program for children, “One World, Many Stories,” has a global/multicultural theme. A-hah! A perfect opportunity to bring forth geography based lists of books for children and teens.

I often hear that school kids are studying “Africa.” And they don’t mean the ~54 countries of Africa. Do Americans know that Africa is not a country? I’m not the only one disturbed by this. Nigerian blogger, Molara Wood, posts: “It baffles me, this stereotype of an indistinct Africa. An Africa whose separate entities are not worth recognising or getting to know.” With Egypt and Libya in the news, can we assume Americans even know where these countries are? Highly doubtful given the news that “after more than three years of combat and nearly 2,400 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map.” Even high level politicians don’t even seem to recognize that Africa is not “a nation.” This begs the question: Is it important in an increasingly global and connected society, to understand geography and cultural differences?

If we think it is, how are we teaching African geography here in the United States? Notice I didn’t say “here in North America.” Do we stress the diversity of African countries and cultures and are children getting it?

There are well-meaning lists and instructions out on the internet (example), but I haven’t yet found another one, like the lists of Africa – Picture Books and Africa – Fiction, posted to our summer reading planning blog, that are subdivided by country.

What I learned in compiling these lists was that many African countries are not represented by name at all in children’s books. The majority of books set in the countries that are represented are historical (a few) or are about Americans working or vacationing in that country. Where are the books about life in modern day Togo? Or hey, with all that’s going on in Libya, do you think I could find you a story that takes place there? According to the excellent searchable Africa Access database, there’s one – set a century ago.

Herein lies my plea to publishers. Please publish more books set in present day African nations. Our kids need interesting stories about native people and cultures in the separate countries of the African continent.

If you don’t think it’s important, look at this map. And test your knowledge - how fast can you do this Africa puzzle?


  1. "Is it important in an increasingly global and connected society, to understand geography and cultural differences?"

    This ironic statement is so devastatingly true. We are so provincial in our teachings to students...despite the drastic changes the world has undergone, we teach the same history, read the same books (Great Expectations, anyone?) and, most regrettably, omit the majority of the world's history and present state.

    Yes, it's important to learn about our own history - but if that's really true, why haven't students begun being taught about a point in time that has actually affected their current life - the last 50 years? We teach nothing about Africa apart from the pyramids - it's as though an entire continent doesn't exist.

    Going further, world history is quite limited as well. I was never taught Australia began as a place where convicts were brought. I know only what I've experienced for myself about Oceania, much of Asia and even, gosh darn it, Canada! If I had to describe my studies about the lower Americas it would be limited to the Mayans and Aztecs.

    I realize the whole world is a lot to cover, but in 13 years of schooling, you'd think studies might extend a little bit more, ay? There is so much the youth - no, the entire country, from youth to adulthood and elderliness - don't know. It encourages stereotypical views that are easily developed into negative ones.

    How do I tend to learn about different countries? I read. Specifically, I read about people who explore or live in different parts of the world.

    I recently read a story about a writer and professor - a runner - who had moved from Boston back to his native Japan. I always knew there was more to Japan than the massiveness of Tokyo, but how the heck was I going to learn anything about the mindset, culture and lifestyle from eating at Japanese places or watching Americans vacation there on the Travel Channel?

    But then again, I was fortunate enough to have been able to study abroad and develop lifelong friendships with Australians. I have family friends in Sweden. I could go to Germany and spend time with one of the great friend in my life. My curiosity for all I'd missed encouraged me to go out of my way to learn about the rest of this earth. I won't stop.

    I started reading Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes a few weeks ago. The book speaks of Cook's travels and the people he encountered but it also describes Horwitz's experiences following up in these locations and what the people are really like. I've started seeking out the actual history of these people (curiosity factor) because it's actually pretty fascinating. I heard a reference to the Maori (New Zealand) last week and was really satisfied I knew a bit about who they are.

    But we can't assume everyone will have that life-changing experience I did (studying abroad) that will make them realize the world is full of different people and cultures (not just different vacation spots). We need to start working it into the everyday learnings of people. We are naturally inclined to stay inside our comfort zones. So I think this is just a matter of pushing people outside them to open eyes to different cultures, people and the histories.

    Ps. Tony Horwitz is going to be at the APA Author Tea at BEA on Wednesday. I'm beyond excited.

  2. Ko,
    Thanks for a great response! You are right on talking about how much easier it is to learn about a place by travelling. Luckily, libraries can help even out this cultural knowledge gap by providing access to information. Linda's entry is a great reminder for all librarians to be mindful of the cultural knowledge gap as librarians often serve as a great resource to navigate the plethora of information resources.
    Glad to hear you are excited to see Tony Horwitz! Any other authors you are looking forward to seeing??

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  5. Guest blogging is awesome folks.

    Regards, Mikes
    The 2 Girls Teach Sex Dude.

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