After admitting I was no oracle on Asian history, the next thing I'd do in the first lecture was to hand out a blank map of Asia, pretty much like this.
This usually provoked some consternation. Tests already?
'You don't have to write your name on this,' I said, 'but I want you to do something. Maybe it's a good idea to avoid looking at what the person next to you is doing. Just do this on your own.'
If you look on this map, it has political boundaries drawn on it. Sometimes I'd hand out ones like this, but at other times, I kept it entirely blank, except for the Asian coastlines.
'Just write in the names of these places, as near as possible to the centre of the country, or with the tip of an arrowhead in the country. There's only twelve I'm asking for. If you're not sure, take a guess.'
IndiaThese were the names and I'd call them out in that order.
'Put your name on the page if you feel like it.' (That was always an interesting test of character!) I'd collect them straight away.
Now, I don't know how good at geography you were by the time you'd finished high school, but my knowledge wasn't that great. I confess that I only really got a good handle on where some countries were in relation to others when I travelled to them.
Still, some of the results of this little test were quite shocking, even to me. Some students could not place India on a map of Asia. I couldn't imagine anyone not recognising that distinctive triangle. Some wrote the name 'China' where Indo-China is. Vietnam appeared on some maps as the island of Borneo. The hint of a little portion of Australia was no help to a few, who in despair simply left it out.
There was, though, one interesting thing that always surprised me a little. Nearly every person, no matter how wrong they got other places, including India and China, identified Japan correctly. Somehow it's a very distinctive shape with its own identity in people's minds, even in those whose knowledge of world geography is otherwise pathetic.
A test like this is a brutal realisation of what a teacher of history can be up against. If Vietnam is the island of Borneo, this person can know nothing of the history of the Vietnam war... the Ho Chi Minh trail... Cambodia... war with China....
Nor can they hope to understand the vital importance geography has in shaping history. Almost by itself, geography explains the historical xenophobia of the Chinese and the evolutionary character of Indian history... the qualities of the Chinese soldier compared with the ideals of the samurai.... Why India and China developed so separately from each other. How and why the profound influence of Chinese culture spread to Japan via Korea over a thousand years or more.
So much. How could they understand modern history? The state of Iraq, the nature of Iranian politics, the creation of Bangladesh? Afghanistan? Where was Australia in all this?
I had a lot of work ahead of me. But there were ways to overcome this terrible ignorance, starting with some clay in a tray and a jug of water.
There was one person's test I'll never forget. This was one of the rare times I'd handed out a completely blank map with no political boundaries.
She had placed her paper on the desk near the door and walked out early.
I looked at her effort.
She'd attempted to write countries' names in the ocean area. She had no idea what was land and what was sea.
I never saw her again.