WASHINGTON—An alarming new study conducted by the Department of Education has found that 60 percent of all Americans are unable to locate the major retail outlet Payless Shoes when presented with an ordinary shopping-center map.
The study, which surveyed 200 consumers, has raised a number of troubling questions about the public's grasp of basic mall geography, its ability to identify key regional chains, and its awareness of the diverse brands and logos that make up today's world.
"Not only did a majority of Americans fail to find Payless Shoes on the map, but, more disturbingly, many didn't even know which floor to look on," said Dr. Howard Saunders, a cultural studies professor and the study's lead researcher. "To see countless men and women point to the outline of a parking garage and call it the largest footwear retailer on earth—well, it makes you wonder about our priorities as a society."
Saunders, who stressed that knowing the location of various stores is one of the most relevant real-world skills Americans can possess, said he was deeply discouraged by the study's results. Of the 60 percent of participants who struggled to find Payless Shoes on the map, nearly 30 percent seemed to be guessing at random and 20 percent reportedly confused the shop with the similar-looking Foot Locker. Another 5 percent searched for assistance, but were unable to figure out how to get to a nearby information desk.
Even more shocking, Saunders said, was the inability of many Americans to pinpoint their own location, despite it being accompanied by a bright green star and the words "You Are Here."
"These results are far worse than we could have anticipated," continued Saunders. "It's almost as if these people had never traveled outside of a JCPenney before."
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who personally monitored the study, said that the United States ranked behind 130 other nations when it came to mall-map comprehension—an embarrassment considering one-third of the countries surveyed didn't even have shopping centers.
"In a modern, mall-going society, these important life skills should be second nature to citizens of all ages," Spellings said. "No schoolchild should be allowed to grow up ignorant of the varied chain stores around him."
Despite her frustration, Spellings said she wasn't surprised by the poor test results, and claimed that they signaled a larger cultural illiteracy trend. According to Spellings, over the last decade Americans have fallen off in almost every field of study and endeavor, from mall geography to television history to basic text-message reading and writing.
"With each passing year, more Americans struggle to identify important national figures, like Survivor winner Richard Hatch, and lose the ability to think critically, such as when ordering from the Taco Bell value menu," Spellings said. "By the time our young people reach adulthood, there may be no one left with the expertise necessary to elect our nation's next American Idol."
The drop, Spellings said, is especially evident in the sciences, with countless men and women lacking the rudimentary math skills needed to follow an episode of Deal Or No Deal. Still others find themselves unable to properly calculate the simplest of fractions, severely hindering their ability to divide a large pizza equally among friends.
Offended by the implication of her claims, many citizens have called Spelling's allegations overly alarmist and extremely pessimistic, and a large number are now asking, "What's a Secretary of Education?"
"Our nation is every bit as educated and well informed today as it was 20 years ago," Michigan resident Dale Henderson said. "If anything, we know more football and hockey trivia now than ever before."
Despite the criticism, Spellings said she's committed to getting the nation back to where it should be academically, and announced that she already has a foolproof, long-term initiative for turning the American education system around.
"Not only will my alterations to our current educational system improve the quality of our schools, but it'll also provide the proper support for both students and teachers," Spellings said. "Trust me, I saw the whole thing on an episode of Boston Public once."