PRAGUE, May 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It's a classic joke with an element of truth.
An American woman looking to vacation in the U.S. island state of Hawaii asks her travel agent: "Would it be cheaper to fly to California and then take the train to Hawaii?"
Whether the story is based on fact or just an urban legend, the message is clear: some Americans just aren't very good at geography.
A new U.S. survey supports this view. Released last week, the Roper poll -- conducted on behalf of the National Geographic Society, a scientific and educational NGO -- found that 63 percent of young Americans were unable to find Iraq on a map.
Seventy-five percent could not find other international hotspots like Israel or Iran.
That doesn't surprise Elana, a 19-year-old student from Macedonia.
"They have their own world and they have their own history, their own geography, I suppose," Elana said. "They have their own continent and probably they concentrate more on it and disregard the rest."
But some Americans don't seem to be concentrating very hard on their own continent, either. Fewer than 50 percent of those polled in the survey could identify the U.S. states of New York or Ohio on a map.
But is the rest of the world any better?
Some international students in Prague had an equally difficult time locating key countries on a map.
Junnya, a 20-year-old from Japan, admitted he wasn't very good with maps. Asked to locate Afghanistan, he eventually settled for a spot somewhere in Central Asia:
RFE/RL: "Can you show me on the map where Afghanistan is?"Marek, a 24-year-old from the Czech Republic, was equally confused trying to find Afghanistan:
Junnya: "OK. I'm not too sure about it. It's..."
RFE/RL: "But you know which continent, right?"
Junnya: "Yeah, on this continent, and it's got to be somewhere around here, but I'm not sure."
But other students performed much better, easily finding Sudan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq on the map. The rest of the world, it seems, may be more geographically savvy than the average Americans.
Marek: "Asia... hmmm... here, I think. No, that's Belarus...."
RFE/RL: "That's Kazakhstan."
Marek: "Kazakhstan. OK, I don't know. Maybe it's here. I'm just guessing."
That impression is supported by more scientific data. In a 2002 Roper poll of geographic knowledge among citizens from nine different countries, the United States came in second-to-last place, followed by Mexico. The Swedes came out on top.
So why are Americans so infamously bad at geography? Is it a symptom of what some say is the country's creeping isolationism?
Terry Garcia, an executive vice president at National Geographic, thinks the answer is more simple.
"Geography is not consistently taught in the United States, that's one of the problems," Garcia said. "Pretty much after the 7th grade here in the United States, geography isn't taught."
Travel and foreign languages are other factors that seem to affect geographic literacy. The 2002 survey showed that in the highest-scoring countries more than 70 percent had traveled internationally in the last three years. In the United States, that figure was only 20 percent.
It was travel that spurred on Roger Andresen, an American who founded A Broader View, a company that makes educational geography products like puzzles.
He says that geography is losing its status as an important educational subject in its own right.
"What used to be a geography class has now been grouped with a social studies class, so it's kind of a history and geography and sociology class all clumped into one, and the geography gets a lot less influence," Andresen said.
As a marketing tool, Andresen's company launched GeographyZone, an online geography competition where participants test their knowledge by locating unmarked countries on a map.
Andresen says some 20,000 people play every day, providing a kind of unofficial study of geographic prowess around the world.
The international rankings on GeographyZone only appear to confirm what National Geographic has already concluded -- the United States is currently bringing up the rear in 149th place.
And in first place? The Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.