State and Local Legal Blog

We really are failing geography…

October 19, 2009
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Remember the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study? In 2006, Young Americans (18 – 24) answered 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 state on a map.

But that’s not all. Three-quarters (74%) believe English is the most commonly spoken native language in the world, rather than Mandarin Chinese. Although 73% know the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of oil, nearly as many (71%) do not know the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of goods and services; – half think it’s China.  Fewer than half can locate the state of Ohio on a map (43%)

But because we are not teaching geography, it is not viewed as important.  Half of young Americans think it is “important but not absolutely necessary” either to know where countries in the news are located (50%) or to be able to speak a foreign language (47%) – and six in ten (62%) young Americans cannot speak a second language fluently (38% report being able to speak on or more non-native languages “fluently”). Indeed, young adults are far more likely to say
speaking a foreign language is “not too important” (38%) than to say it is “absolutely necessary” (14%).

And we think we can compete in a global economy? Come on, now.  Who are we kidding?


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Failing Geography 2?

October 16, 2009
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What is the significance of the Prime Meridian?  The Prime Meridian is the zero (0) meridian of longitude.  East of the Prime Meridian is an east longitude; west is a west longitude.  Greenwich Mean Time [GMT] proceeds from the Prime Meridian.

How many countries does Denmark border? Only one, Germany.

Where is “Tornado Alley”?  Tornado Alley is an area stretching from northwest Texas, across Oklahoma and through northeast Kansas.

Where are glaciers located? Glaciers are traditionally thought to be found in cold, northern places, but they are actually located on all continents.

What is a fjord?  Dramatic looking canyons with high cliffs hanging over a thin bay of water are known as fjords.  Created at the end of the ice age, they are very common in Norway and Alaska.

Tune in on Friday to discover that we really are failing geography!

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Failing geography?

October 15, 2009
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What is the Prime Meridian?  The Prime Meridian is a line of longitude that “theoretically speaking” runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

Is there any current subcontinent on the globe? Currently, there is only one subcontinent, principally India.

What is permafrost? Permafrost is ground that is so frozen that it will not support vegetation.  For example, the tree line, which changes from latitude to latitude around the world, is a result of temperatures and permafrost.

Who “owns” Greenland? Denmark.  Greenland is a territory of Denmark but it has been locally governed since 1979.

What country has the world’s highest population density?  Macao.

How’d you do?

Try these:

What is the significance of the Prime Meridian?

How many countries does Denmark border?

Where is “Tornado Alley”?

Where are glaciers located?

What is a fjord?

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Geography is a diversion…

October 14, 2009
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Answers from yesterday:

Which comes first, latitude or longitude?  Latitude comes before longitude.  Latitude is written with a number, followed by either North or South, depending on whether the location is north or south of the equator.  Longitude is written with a number, too, followed by East or West, depending on whether the location is east or west of the Prime Meridian.

What is a subcontinent? A subcontinent is a landmass that has its own continental shelf and its own continental plate.

What is the world’s largest island? Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat). [Australia is not considered an island; it is a continent.]

What is a tree line? A tree line is a point of elevation at which trees can no longer grow.

What nations polled highest and lowest respectively in the 2006 National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study? Sweeden polled highest; the US and Mexico tied for last place.

So, how did you do?

Try these:

What is the Prime Meridian?

Is there any current subcontinent on the globe?

What is permafrost?

Who “owns” Greenland?

What country has the world’s highest population density?

Answers tomorrow.

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Geography as a Diversion

October 13, 2009
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Geography IS a diversion in education, it seems, except as an “applied technology — GIS”.

Sarah Palin’s shaky grasp of geography stressed out the McCain campaign, the Chicago Tribune reported on November 6 of last year. A Fox News reporter, sworn to secrecy until after the election, said a campaign insider told him Palin was unaware that Africa was a continent rather than a single country, and she was unable to name the three members of NAFTA—Mexico, the US, and Canada.

While this is pretty scary, considering she was a VP nominee, it is consist with all of the polls of the Americans on the street who tend to reflect that we know nothing much about geography.

Not to be dis-in’ the GOP, but the Prime Minister of Mauritius was visiting Nixon, who confused Maritius with Mauritania, a country in West African which had not had diplomatic relations with the US for several years.  The US has a space tracking station on Mauritius; Mauritius and the US get along well.  So imagine the Prime Minister’s surprise when Nixon suggested that “…the time had come to restore diplomatic relations?”

Henry Kissinger, present at the event,  and after discussing the space tracking station and its operation with the Prime Minister, hurriedly wrote a note on a yellow legal pad, passing it to Kissinger:  “Why the hell do we have a space tracking system in a country with which we do not have diplomatic relations?”

If the president can’t get it right — for all his prep staff — how can we mortals be expected to know geography?

But lets take a try at it, shall we?

Which comes first, latitude or longitude?

What is a subcontinent?

What is the world’s largest island?

What is a tree line?

What nations polled highest and lowest respectively in the 2006 National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study?

Answers tomorrow.

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A Diversion: Attending to Geography

October 12, 2009
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Geographer and author Harm de Blij (Why Geography Matters: Three Challenges Facing America) was on campus at Mississippi State a week or so ago.  I’ve had his book for about 4 years (in fact, he’s just published  another one, The Power of Place) and I got it out and dusted it off to finish reading it.

I have always loved globes and maps (which is fairly interesting since I have absolutely no sense of direction at all).  Yet, geography is not taught as it once was, either in elementary school, high school or colleges in America.  And we are all the worse for it.

Particularly as our world shrinks, our industry outsources or extends overseas, our investments are traded internationally, and we are — in many ways that I don’t like to think about — at the mercy of other countries and their wares, wars and policies.

Why don’t we want to learn geography?

Why isn’t it important to us?  It should be.

This week we are going to divert ourselves from the course we’ve been on for several weeks — obligations of a public servant — and take a short look at geography in the form of Q & A.  Stay tuned tomorrow!

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Using your own time…appropriately…

October 9, 2009
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OK. So you may be scrupulous in not asking nor allowing a subordinate to do personal favors for you on office time. But do you use your own office time appropriately?

Public employees should refuse to perform improper personal tasks on government time.

What does that mean? It means that an employee shall use official time in an honest effort to perform official duties. A public employee’s time is public property which should not be misappropriated to personal use.


  • 8 a.m. means at your desk, not in the parking lot.
  • A one hour lunch-hour is not the same as a one-hour lunch.
  • Absent extraordinary circumstances, Facebook time is not used in the performance of official duties.

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Personal Use of a Subordinate’s Time

October 8, 2009
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Public employees should not use other public employees’ government time for private benefit.  As a public employee, have you ever asked a subordinate to do something for you?  Something personal?  Picking up lunch?  Your laundry?  Your kids?

An employee should not encourage, direct, coerce or request a subordinate to use official time to perform activities other than those required in the performance of official duties.  In fact, a public employee should not allow a subordinate to do so, no matter how voluntary the offer or how incredibly convenient the outcome.

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What about gifts?

October 7, 2009
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Americans are generous.  We are a gift giving society.  So what about public officials who receive gifts?  It is considered inappropriate in our culture to refuse a gift.  The gracious act of giving must receive a gracious response:  a thank you, at least; possibly a return gift.

Accepting gifts is certainly an issue of public trust.  It is also a problem that affects the independence and objectivity of public employees.

Office of  Government Ethics (OGE, a federal office) Rules define gifts as:  “any gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value.  It includes services as well as gifts of training, transportation, local travel, lodgings and meals, whether provided in-kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance, or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred.  It does not include:

  1. modest items of food and refreshments, such as soft drinks, coffee and donuts, offered other than as part of a meal;
  2. greeting cards and items with little intrinsic value, such as plaques, certificates, and trophies, which are intended solely for presentation;
  3. loans from banks and other financial institutions on terms generally available to the public;
  4. opportunities and benefits, including favorable rates and commercial discounts, available to the public or to a class consisting of all government employees or all uniformed military personnel, whether or not restricted on the basis of geographic considerations;
  5. rewards or prizes given to competitors in contests or events, including random drawings, open to
  6. the public unless the employee’s entry into the contest or event is required as part of his official duties;
  7. anything which is paid for by the government or secured by the government under government contract.

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The Impropriety of Personal Benefits

October 6, 2009
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Josephson says that “public employees should neither seek nor accept any form of personal benefit from the performance of their duty to deal with a matter promptly, efficiently or fairly or for the exercise of appropriate but discretionary representational authority.”    Remember that even if a benefit has no affect on the decisions or actions of a public servant, it is improper to seek or to accept an unsought unofficial compensation or benefit of any sort for the performance of a public duty.

In other words, a public office should only be used to advance the public interest.  It should not be used to attain personal benefits.

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