A few days ago I watched a video from the Jimmy Kimmel TV show that really jolted me. In a typical “man on the street” setup, passers-by were asked to identify a country on a world map. They could identify any country—the U.S., China, England—any one they chose. One by one the viewers failed the test. A few identified Africa as a country, but couldn’t find any country on the continent. At last a boy, who looked as though he might have been in fifth or sixth grade, was asked and he swiftly identified the U.S., Mexico, and a string of countries in South America.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how these people ever followed the news about world events. Hearing news about Syria without having any idea where Syria is would certainly not help anyone understand what is going on in the Middle East. With Google earth and all the digital maps available why are people so geographically illiterate?
Making maps is something people have been doing for thousands of years. As knowledge about the world grew, people were able to visualize how the known world was laid out. Instead of being limited to the small area in which they were born and raised, seamen and warriors were empowered to explore larger and larger swaths of the world.
One important mapmaker, although little known, was Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who mapped much of the Middle East for the British Army in the early years of the 20th century. I wrote a blog piece about her back in 2014 after I had read and been fascinated by her biography. Her work was important in shaping the boundaries of the current countries in that area—for better and for worse. Understanding how modern boundaries came into being can help us see how conflict in the area became almost inevitable.
Maps and globes are important in shaping how we see the world. More than ten years ago when I visited Cape Town, South Africa, I saw an art exhibit called Perspectives on Africa. The exhibit was designed to show how differently Africa was viewed by various groups of people. One installation included three world globes hung in different ways—one in the conventional way with the North Pole at the top; the next swung from two points on the equator; and the third with the South Pole at the top. The artist made the point that the conventional way we hang the globe is no more sensible than several other ways. I’ve never forgotten how surprising the “upside-down” globe looked to me. It gave me a new perspective on the southern hemisphere.
I am not sure how geography is taught in the schools today, but I am often astonished at the limited knowledge many Americans have of the world outside our borders. Perhaps we should ask teachers to post a large map of the world on the wall of every classroom and a globe in every library. Many children learn about maps by looking at the tiny screen of a phone. Seeing the larger picture day after day might broaden their horizons and encourage them to notice that while Google maps are great for planning trips, they offer only a tiny picture of the world around us. Even now in the 21st century, Google does not rule the world!
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.—Mark Twain
Despite Mark Twain’s excellent advice, a lot of people back in his day—like many people today—did vegetate in one little corner of the earth for their entire life. Of course the majority of people have never had a choice. To travel comfortably is a luxury reserved for prosperous people, but even among them, many people don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than half of all Americans have a passport.
Traditionally men have traveled while women stayed at home, but there have always been women who insisted on travelling just as their brothers and husbands did. One of the most notable woman travelers of the 19th century was Gertrude Bell. She traveled and learned about other cultures, studied languages, and had a major influence on the course of history.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in County Durham, England, in 1868. Her mother died when she was very young, but her father soon remarried and her stepmother, Florence Bell, was a strong influence on the girl. She even decided, eventually, that Gertrude was too restless and intelligent to be decorously educated at home as other girls were. She was sent to school and even attended a women’s college in Oxford where she was the first woman ever to receive a first in history. She was not, however, awarded a degree for that because women might study and excel in learning, but it was feared that an actual degree was a step too far.
Gertrude’s father supported her desire to travel and her interest in archeology and
supplied a generous allowance that made it possible for her to travel the world. She fell in love with the Middle East and spent much of her life there, learning languages, studying ruins, and getting to know the rulers and their wives. Despite looking like a staid Victorian schoolteacher, Bell was a fearless traveler.
In 1911, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy replaced coal fired ships with oil powered ones. Suddenly England became dependent on oil from the Middle East and the exotic countries where it was produced. Access to the oil was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed most of Mesopotamia, and the Turks were allies of the Germans.
British intelligence was very interested in what was going on in the Middle East and because Gertrude was recognized as an expert, she was summoned to Cairo to help map the area. Given the rank of Major—the first woman officer in the history of British intelligence—she caused consternation among other officers who couldn’t figure out how to treat her. But she managed build a comfortable relationship with the men, and she played a vital role in establishing the governments that ruled the Middle East for decades after the war.
Iraq was the country that was closest to her heart. While she was there she oversaw the establishment of the great National Museum to house antiquities of the country. She also started the library, which became the National Library of Iraq.
There have been many questions raised about the role Bell played in establishing borders for countries that no Westerner truly understood. She was not always right in her advice, but she respected the people and, unlike most of the English, she foresaw many of the difficulties that would arise. Perhaps before any of us make judgments about Bell’s work we should read the biography written by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.
Now that we have so many ways of getting to know the world, maybe in 2018 more people can travel whether in person, by reading, or through the Internet. And remember the words of Confucius “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”