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Geography: Poorly Understood, Little Taught

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One of the complaints of geographers, and one reason why they say geography may not get enough attention in schools, is that people do not really understand their discipline.

"One of the problems that geography and geographers have had is that the word 'geography' does not convey a clear impression" of the field according to Robert W. Morrill, chairman of the department of geography at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a member of the committee that developed the new guidelines for geographic education.

"People think that geography is a body of knowledge that is acquired once," he said. "People don't see it as an active field that continues to grow as changes on the earth's surface occur."

According to Mr. Morrill, "Geography has for a very long time served as a 'bridge' discipline," that has components of both the natural and social sciences. Even geography's tools and techniques, such as cartography and remote sensing, he noted, are shared with other disciplines.

However, he argued that geography does have unique things to offer students. "One of [geography's] significant contributions is the unique perspective that we have in terms of spatial relationships at all scales--what is happening on the earth's surface as people relate to eachother and to natural processes," he said.

He added: "I think one of the very basic reasons why geography should be present in all levels of the curriculum is that there is no way that we cannot interact with the earth. We are in continual relation with the earth, and I think we need to understand that. We need to understand our place, in a sense."

"The United States is increasingly involved in a global economy rather than a national economy, and if we don't understand what resources other places have, what problems they have, how they're connected to us by trade and politics and culture, we have a poor basis for making the kinds of decisions that we're making in our economic and political lives," added Janice J. Monk, another member of the committee and executive director of the Southwest Institute for Research on Women.

Both Mr. Morrill and Ms. Monk noted that without geographic education, few students understand the career options that geography offers.

There is a strong demand, they said, for geographers with a background in physical geography who can work on problems of natural resources; for cartographers, who can design and produce maps, especially computer maps; and for people who specialize in remote sensing, aerial photography, satellite imagery, and the whole range of geographic possibilities opened up by the space program. Ms. Monk noted that geographers are involved in energy planning, geology, census taking, and "a whole array of planning and policy areas that have to do with our built environment and our natural environment."--lo

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