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Geographic Society Focuses on 'Literacy'

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Washington--Making the announcement a centerpiece of its centennial celebration, the National Geographic Society last week said it was creating a $20-million foundation aimed at eliminating "geographic illiteracy" by strengthening instruction in the schools.

"We have successfully popularized geography for the general public,'' said Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the society's president, at a press conference here. "But there is one area where we have clearly failed. Our youngsters today are geographically illiterate."

"At the end of our next 100 years," added Robert L. Breeden, the society's senior vice president for publications and educational media, "we are going to be remembered as the people who put geography back in the nation's schools."

If it is successful, the new National Geographic Society Education Foundation will improve students' ability to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world, the officials said. But its effects could also spill over into other subject areas, they noted.

"How can you study A Tale of Two Cities if you don't know where Paris is?" Mr. Grosvenor asked.

Teacher Training

Best known for its monthly magazine and television documentaries, National Geographic launched in 1985 an education program to improve the teaching of geography in schools.

Over the past two years, the society has formed 22 local "alliances'' of teachers and scholars in 20 states, which meet to exchange information and hold workshops. In addi4tion, it has sponsored summer institutes for teachers; developed teaching materials, including interactive videodisks; and provided maps and atlases for students.

But Mr. Grosvenor said that despite this investment of "time, energy, and $7 million," many students still lack the most basic geographic knowledge, such as the ability to locate the United States on a map.

"Clearly, we need to do more," he said.

With its initial endowment, the new foundation will make grants to the local alliances to continue training teachers in geographic subject matter and teaching methods, Mr. Grosvenor said.

Eventually, he added, the foundation could expand its activities to include the production of publications and textbooks. The society will match up to $20 million in contributions from corporations, foundations, and individuals, he said, adding that he hoped the endowment "will reach $100 million some day."

The organization has already received a $200,000 bequest from the estate of Dorothy Chancellor, a longtime employee of the Pasadena, Calif., school system, and $400,000 worth of computer equipment from Apple Computer Inc.

In addition, part of the proceeds from the sale of a calendar produced for the society's centennial will go to the foundation.

Mr. Grosvenor will serve as chairman of the foundation's board. Its president will be Lloyd H. Elliott, president of George Washington University.

'1950's Techniques'

Mr. Grosvenor said that a key element in the foundation's work8would be the generation of support from parents, teachers, principals, school-board members, and governors for reinstating the subject in the curriculum. Geography, he said, has "practically disappeared from school systems" at a time when it is most essential.

"In this era of rapid transportation, instant communication, and satellite television, we truly live in a global village," he said.

"If you don't know where you are in this world, you are nowhere."

Perhaps most important, he said, will be the foundation's effort to offer new teaching methods that can generate students' enthusiasm for the subject.

"Unfortunately, in schools geography is perceived as being dull and a process of memorization," he said. "Teachers are still using 1950's techniques to teach it."

"Kids are visually oriented, but we're not utilizing the visual image in schools," he added. "This, we hope to correct."

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