We can probably all agree that certain things are not taught (or at least learned) enough in American schools. I think one of these subjects is geography. We are probably lacking in this area because of our aversion to memorization tasks - there aren't many other ways to learn geography than by memorizing place names and locations. First of all, a little rote memorization never hurt anyone, especially when it was not coming at the cost of other educational experiences. Training your memory is very useful for life, and setting out to memorize some body of knowledge and then achieving your goal can really build confidence. Finally, knowing about geography helps you make friends! In this global age, we should all educate ourselves to be familiar with the peoples and places around the world.
I have met so many people from around the world at my university, at conferences, summer institutes, and during my own travels. It really makes you feel like a "dumb American" to realize that you don't know a single thing about the country that someone comes from. Where is it? What is the capital and the other major cities? What is the terrain like? How about the weather? What is the history of the place? If it is rich or poor, how did it get to be that way?
When you travel, you find these things out, sometimes as a shock. "Wow, Mexico has high mountains and old, colonial silver mining towns - how cool." "Budapest has caves, and it's freezing cold inside them! But they are filled with mineral water you can experience at the many spas there." "Korea has the hardest rain I've ever seen, and it continues for a whole monsoon season." "Who knew that Ethiopian food bears a certain similarity to Indian food? This 'sambussa' looks a lot like a 'samosa' I might get at my favorite Indian place. Oh yeah, I guess they are not that far away from each other..." Etc, etc, etc.
Fortunately, there are fun ways to learn about geography, at least to whet your appetite before you embark on some nice memorization and quizzes. I love Peter Menzel's gorgeous photo books, Hungy Planet: What the World Eats, and Material World: A Global Family Portrait. They have huge pictures of families from many different countries around the world, showing us the food they typically eat in a month (in the case of Hungry Planet), or all the possessions in their home (Material World). You can spend hours looking at these pictures, which are accompanied by facts about each country and some interview excerpts from the family members.
If you're the competitive sort, you can try these challenging quizzes that are on facebook as well as this website: http://www.travelpod.com/traveler-iq. (I just tried it and made it to Level 10 of 12 with 359,945 points. Can you beat me?)
Happy reading and happy clicking!