On Sunday morning @courosa asked on Twitter, "how many countries can you name in 5 minutes? http://is.gd/60P5G"
"What do you mean by country?" I asked in return, "UN, FIFA, other?"
A little later @AltEdAdventures asked, "I named 41. Am I blind, or was England/Great Britan not an accepted country?"
Is Wales a country? Scotland? England? Somaliland? Puerto Rico? Great Britain? Catalonia? Northern Ireland? Palestine?
"FIFA," says Wikipedia, "has 208 member associations, which is 16 more than the United Nations and three more than the International Olympic Committee, though five fewer than the International Association of Athletics Federations."
According to the United Nations - or the US State Department - there is a nation off the northwest coast of Europe called "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." Nearby is a nation called "The Republic of Ireland." According to FIFA, the international soccer organizing group, there are at least five nations there: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland, each of whom compete under their own national flag, play their own national anthems. If you ask the Irish government, constitutionally, they will tell you that there are two nations: Great Britain and Ireland, with part of Ireland being occupied by Great Britain and still awaiting the re-unification plebiscite scheduled for 1925. If you ask the Irish government, officially, the answer will leave you baffled as they try to describe something both unacceptable yet fully accepted.
And what of Somaliland? An independent, functioning, self-governing nation since 1991 that no one officially recognizes.
What of Catalonia? A "nation" with its own language, culture, very distinct history, even a "not-recognized-by-FIFA-but-they-can-play" national soccer team?
Of course, then, there's Palestine.
So the child faced with the "name the countries" question or the "fill out the map" worksheet needs to ask, not answer. That new question - "What do we mean when we say "country" or "nation"?" is the really valuable topic, in a way a list of memorized names will never be. And it will introduce students to the vast differences in the ways of human thinking. The child in London understands "country" quite differently than the child in Kansas City, and neither is right. Just as "democracy" is different for the child in Dublin than the child in Boise. Just as "border" means one thing in Texas and something else in Pakistan or Yemen. Even when we start adding 2+2 different cultural rules come into play. If we ignore this, we are training our students in ignorance.
This isn't post-modernism run amok. Rather, it is training our students to understand the complexities of the world. It is essential. Hell, even business schools now understand this.
So next time you ask a question, don't look for an answer, look for the questions which challenge our knowledge of our world. That's real education.
- Ira Socol