The geography of sex

Sometimes it isn't girls against boys but imagination vs. memorization.

By Stephen S. Hall

Published June 6, 2000 7:25PM (EDT)

Like many writers who have taken on the subject of cartography, I've had occasion to invoke the brilliant "map" passage from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

"At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth," the character Marlow says, referring to maps he studied in his youth, "and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.'"

The map passage has become a bit of a clichi, but I think it goes a long way toward explaining why there is an alleged "gender gap" between boys and girls when it comes to geography -- the subject of some equally clichid handwringing and speculation last week when it was reported that all 10 finalists in this year's National Geography Bee were boys.

In contrasting the known with the unknown, Conrad unwittingly mapped out the geographical divide between memorization and imagination. Let us deconstruct the controversy. According to a front-page account in the New York Times, the annual National Geography Bee has been dominated by male contestants and researchers at Pennsylvania State University, in a study funded by the National Geographic Society, reported that girls have less aptitude for spatial reasoning than boys -- hence the "gender gap."

First, it is always foolish to infer social trends or cultural shortcomings from an event that, at least in part, is specifically designed to generate publicity. The National Geography Bee may have laudable educational goals, but it is also, clearly, a marketing vehicle for the National Geographic Society, which sponsors the event.

Second, what do we mean by geographical knowledge? If it requires, as the national contest did, knowing the names of the two large islands separated by the Strait of Bonifacio or the name of the judicial capital of South Africa, then girls should glory in their ignorance. It shows they can discriminate between the study of obscure, irrelevant facts and knowledge with context and import.

It's not an altogether bad thing to know that the German city of Dresden lies on the Elbe River (another question from the finals), but it is the kind of fact one might easily acquire while learning what happened to Dresden in 1945, why such a beautiful city was devastated by punitive and militarily unnecessary Allied bombing, the rich history that preceded that historic conflagration and the rebuilding that has occurred since. Perhaps girls understand that geography is merely the game board of history. It's what happens on it -- and why -- that really matters.

Third, is geography really a gender issue? I remember watching an episode of the TV show "I've Got a Secret" when I was growing up. The mystery guest turned out to be a young man who had memorized every statistic on the back of every baseball card issued that particular year. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was marginally forgivable to confuse a prodigious memory with true knowledge. It seems quaintly nostalgic to make the same argument today. And if you really wanted to make a gender issue out of it, you could probably argue that only a boy (or a man) would devote so much energy to so much peripheral, inconsequential knowledge.

The ability to memorize place names on a map no more predicts the ability to think than performing well in a spelling bee predicts the ability to write (see F. Scott Fitzgerald).

I have a 4-year-old daughter who has never shown much interest in maps, but she has an incredibly rich imaginative life that requires, I believe, its own geography. With a few props (blocks, dolls, figures), she constructs an entire three-dimensional landscape of people with personalities, territories, points of interaction and conflicts over boundaries; she carries a very specific map of their interactions in her head, because it is important to her game.

She can't point out St. Louis on a map, but she knows the name very well because she once spent hours in an airline terminal waiting for a plane from St. Louis that never arrived. It became a place of mythical importance because of her disappointment, and someday that vivid memory will cross paths with a map.

Geography is important because of the personal, idiosyncratic experiences inscribed upon it, a conclusion that reminds me of an argument I used to have with my grandfather, an Italian immigrant who came to this country early in the last century and worked as a manual laborer on railroads in the Midwest. I'd ask him where he'd been, and he'd rattle off a list of towns, including (as he put it) "St. Aloose," which he insisted was in the state of Minnesota.

No, I politely pointed out, St. Louis was in Missouri. But he was a stubborn man and never conceded the point in his lifetime. At some level, of course, it's important to know that St. Louis is in Missouri. But at another, Conradian level, I later realized, it doesn't really matter if St. Louis is in Minnesota or Missouri. What matters is that you were there.

Stephen S. Hall

Stephen S. Hall is the author of "Mapping the Next Millennium" and other books about contemporary science.

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