Good Timing For “Olympics of Geography”

Well done, Busch Gardens, for hosting the biennial National Geographic World Championship, the international competition for students 16 and younger. Sure, it was a great marketing coup resulting in national and international media coverage for the theme park and the Bay Area. But the timing could not have been more pertinent for underscoring interest in — and the value of — knowing a lot about the rest of the world.

Americans in general have long been geography-challenged. Embarrassingly so. Stories about high school students not being able to locate Mexico — much less Iran, Iraq or North Korea — on a map are not apocryphal. American “empire” notwithstanding, we as a country can no longer afford such ignorance and the cavalier attitudes that often accompany it. One post-Sept. 11 lesson in self-interest must be this: we can’t stay largely ignorant of the world we are so dominant in — for we do so at our own peril. The U.S., without precedent in its power, remains uniquely vulnerable to those hostile and resentful of our might, our culture, our success, our values and our reach.

“It’s healthy for U.S. citizens and North Americans to get more exposure to international issues,” said Sheila Voss, the St. Louis-based director of environmental and educational programs for Busch Entertainment Corp. “On a national level, we don’t have a lot of standards and international focus. The U.S. tends to be U.S.-centric.

“We also leave a large footprint,” added Voss. “And along with that goes a lot of influence and a lot of responsibility.”

By the way, the three-member U.S. team — teens from North Dakota, Tennessee and North Carolina — won the 17-country competition.

“Busch Gardens Tampa Bay was the perfect blend of fun, education and competition,” assessed Voss. “The kids bonded with their own and their peers from all over the world.”

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