The World America Learns

How many capitals of countries of the world can you name?

(Let me pause a moment so you could count that up. (Silly me. You’re reading this. Of course you can pause.))

Okay, here’s my next question: how many of these countries are in Europe or the Americas? (And as additional questions, how many of the ones in the Americas are in North America, and how many of the ones in Europe are in Western Europe?)

How many of these countries are in Africa? Africa has more countries than Europe, so if your geographical knowledge of the world is balanced, you should know more African capitals than European capitals (this is before considering the case of multiple capitals in African countries).

Okay, and how about Asia?

If you’re like most Americans, the capitals of the world that you know are vastly disproportionate: you know many in the Americas and Europe, much fewer in Asia, and barely any in Africa.

Just to take a step further, how well do you do on this for Pacific Island nations? If you know one, I think you’re qualified to give yourself a pat on the back already in comparison to the general public. (It really isn’t that hard to just remember one. Fiji and Samoa have four-letter capitals.)

Here’s what the results of the corresponding Sporcle quiz look like. As of now, the first African capital down the list (Cairo) is 13th most frequently gotten, with 10 American and European capitals preceding it. To get to the second most remembered capital, you’d need to move down to position 55, with Tunis, ranking behind Reykjavik, a city with one-eighth the population and one-umpteenth the spellability of Tunis. You need to go ever further, to position 66, to reach Nairobi, the most frequently answered Sub-Saharan African capital. Among Pacific Island countries, not a single capital makes the upper half (or even the upper two-thirds). In fact, only one of them (Port Moresby) is answered more frequently than the least frequently answered European capital (Podgorica). If you performed a rank-sum test on the answering frequencies of European versus Pacific Island nations, your p value for the one-tail test would be 0.00000005.

But maybe Africans and Pacific Islanders just pick strange cities for their capitals. Maybe they’re like the United States, where the country’s capital is by far not the largest city and the majority of states have a capital that is not their largest city (as well as arguably not the most historically significant).

Well, first of all, that’s not true. Among both African and Pacific Island nations, a significant majority have their largest city as their capital. But second of all, glad you asked. How many non-capital cities can you name in Africa?

If you know any beyond Alexandria, Benghazi, Casablanca, Lagos, and Johannesburg, I think most people would consider that impressive. Actually, if you knew that Lagos wasn’t a capital, that itself probably already moved you above a huge number of people in geographical knowledge.

(I myself can name only about a dozen non-capital cities in Africa beyond the above list, as compared to many dozens of American, European, and Asian non-capital cities. I too could know Africa substantially better.)

Why are people familiar with Manchester, and Vancouver, and Kraków, and Rio de Janeiro, and Milan, and Chicago, and Geneva, and Barcelona, and Hamburg, but not know non-capital cities to any comparable extent in Africa and Asia?

Okay, enough about cities, how about national icons? You and most people around you can probably describe from memory several European flags: the UK? France? Italy? Ireland? Germany? Switzerland? Denmark? (Once again, somehow mostly Western Europe?)

You probably know what I’m going to ask now. Can you describe a single flag of an African country from memory?

South Africa’s probably the token one here. Sporcle agrees with me. It also agrees with me that after South Africa, it’s a long way down before the next African country, Kenya. (And somehow the set of hardest flags is the Guinea club. How did that happen.)

What about when these countries interact with each other? How many wars fought exclusively in Africa can you name?

I hope you were able to list the second deadliest war in post-WWII world history, the Second Congo War. Somehow, our society decided that the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which combined did not see the death toll the Second Congo War saw, are worthy of that degree of greater familiarity, just because they…involved us?

One more query. Consider the states, provinces, etc., that is, the subnational political divisions of countries in the world. How many of the largest ten can you name?

The largest subnational political division in the world is India’s Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million Indians, more than 1 in 40 of all the humans on Earth. It’s a state of five times the population of California, in an area half as large. Surely you have heard of it?

By the way here’s the top twenty: Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Punjab, Shandong, Henan, West Bengal, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Madhya Pradesh, Sindh, Tamil Nadu, Hebei, Rajasthan, Hunan, Karnataka, Gujarat, Anhui, Hubei. The lower end of this list represents a population of two Texases; the upper end is home to divisions that would be in the top twenty countries by population in they became a country. Surely, at least a few deserve to be familiar as widely as G20 nations. And yet, the first entity on the list probably familiar to most Americans: England, at position 22.

How is the American public this Euro-Americentrically skewed in its knowledge of the world? A lot of it is the society we have built. In our elementary, middle, and high schools, what we learn about the world, even in a class called “World History”, is vastly disproportionately composed of learning about the Americas and Europe. (And, for instance, as I mentioned before, learning much more about Western Europe than Eastern Europe, which actually can be viewed in the same vein as knowing more about Europe than about Asia, as there is really no remotely serious argument to support Europe and Asia being considered separate continents; as an initial teaser: what makes it so that Europe should be a separate continent from Asia but India not?) But also, the typical American just in conversation tends to believe that the US’s inner circle of friendly countries is that much more interesting and worthy of note. And this is very problematic for the American’s understanding of the rest of the world, which I believe that as a nation that constantly finds the need to involve itself in matters around the world, is a duty for it to do well.

The stereotypical American’s knowledge of geography is often snarked and joked about, but what really needs attention is the knowledge of the geography and history of places in the world that are not America and Europe. Because that’s over two-thirds the people in the world, and nowhere near two-thirds what the typical American knows about the nations of the world. And as a country more significant than any other on the world stage, this is not right. We can do better, and we can easily do better, because we know that there are countries that we have gotten ourselves to know much better than some others, and all this is is a request for is a fair share of thought.

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2 thoughts on “The World America Learns

  1. I took the test just now. As you might expect, I got between 50-60% for each of Europe, the Americas, and Asia, depending on whether you count cities I knew the name of but couldn’t figure out how to spell (embarrassingly including Ottawa). Africa was only 30%. So probably not as bad as the average American, but pretty bad. (I did get Juba, though.)

    I actually had to memorize all the countries and capitals of the world back in seventh grade. My recollection is that didn’t Aden use to be the capital of Yemen? And Belize City of Belize? I haven’t checked whether these might be city renamings, but in the case of Yemen, I’m pretty sure they moved the capital from the port of Aden to somewhere inland.

    As for non-capitals in Africa, I’m pretty bad at that, too. I can do Alexandria, Benghazi, Capetown, Casablanca, Lagos, and I think that’s about it. I suspect that a lot of this is that capital cities actually are the dominant cities in much of the country, but it’s also that we just don’t pay enough attention to Africa. (I knew that Lagos wasn’t the capital of Nigeria, but I only learned that recently.)

    I think I’m the one that told you that the reason Europe is a continent was that the ancient Greeks didn’t know that the Black Sea had a northern shore and didn’t just connect to the Ocean River surrounding the continents?)

    As for sub-national divisions, I think I can get about half of India’s, though I admit I haven’t tried. China, on the other hand, I only know a couple random ones. Other than that, I know Britain, Canada, and Australia’s completely (I think) and a few random ones in Europe and maybe five states in Mexico?

    1. You are correct in remembering that you told me about the ancient Greek misunderstanding of the Black Sea.

      Yemen’s capital was once moved from Aden to Sanaa, although now it’s effectively Aden again, unless you decide to recognize the rebels as the legitimate government.

      Belize moved its capital from Belize City to Belmopan after a hurricane half a century ago.

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