In the comedy Black Adder, there is a short scene in which Lieutenant Gorge (played by Hugh Laurie) demonstrates the dangers of insufficient map-reading skills as he crawls into “no man’s land” during the trench warfare campaign in World War I.
While the situation was dramatized for comedic effect, the message of the clip rings true. Decades after World War I, the art of map reading has begun to go the way of the dodo bird as a result of new technologies and the changing face of the world we live in. Mapmaking used to be a revered profession. Even people who were not employed as surveyors or cartographers would strike out to chart new courses and expand the known world as far as it could go. While that zeal for navigating and cataloging the physical world may still characterize the work of some professionals today, such as scientists who explore the deep ocean floors or explorers, the general population has become much less concerned with maps.
Now, I did not major in geography. My fellow intern loves maps to the
extent he uses them in every day conversations. On meeting for the first
time at the National Geographic, he explained the nature of every map
on the wall of our shared office and why he liked it. That’s not me, but
I still understand and appreciate the value of map reading. My friends
and I like to go into D.C. and people watch from the steps of the
Capitol or the lawn by the Washington Monument.They inevitably get
lost, crossing streets only to come back moments later to the same spot,
pointing every which way and gesturing to their companions and at their
maps. I see people struggle with map reading every day, in the car or
on the streets, even in my school’s library. I see people struggling to
understand maps and eventually getting annoyed and giving up.
Map reading has always been difficult for some, like Bugs Bunny, who can
never seem to make that all important left turn at Albuquerque. The
difficulty people have with it has been largely brushed off and turned
into jokes about women who can’t read maps and men who won’t stop and
ask for directions. The sad truth is that, nowadays, most people are
lucky to find their way around a mall or amusement park map without a
‘You Are Here’ sticker and colored pictures of every store or ride. And
that’s if they can read even that most basic type of map.
The smaller a space covered by a map (“extent”) or the more familiar or
simple a map is, the more likely that someone will be able to read it. I
have become “Metro map-literate” and “United States of America
map-literate” from having had to use both for a majority of my life. If
it wasn’t for Time Magazine’s article in 2003 I would have been one of
those 63% that couldn’t find Iraq on a map. After the story broke I
looked it up just to be sure I could find it.
Map reading gives us a sense of place. Understanding maps means
understanding how streets, states, and continents all interconnect. It
helps us comprehend where events on the news are taking place and who
are being affected. Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village”
when talking about how information connected people millions of miles
apart. Map reading is a part of that process of understanding how we all
A big part of teaching map reading is applying hands-on experience to make maps. Check out National Geographic Education’s MapMaker Tools and specifically the Interactive Map
. Another fun way to get kids of all ages learning about map reading is
to send them on scavenger hunts or treasure hunts–the older the
student, the more complex the map.
Another part of understanding our place in the world is accepting that
technology is changing the face of our global community, and that as
time goes on, it is becoming more closely connected through Internet
communities and global news groups. Even if the world isn’t actually
getting physically smaller, it feels like it is! Technology is also
changing the face of maps and travel. The GPS device was created to help
enhance everyday life and the methods of traveling to new places, but
how is it affecting map reading?
Read “Part 2: Map Following,” which will be posted on May 31st, to find out.
Alison for My Wonderful World
Photos courtesy of My Wonderful World:
Camping group around map–James L. Amos
Boy reading map–Joseph H. Bailey