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At New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., more than 500 students this past year took elective classes in geography.

High school educators in Frederick County, Md., last year began teaching a separate geography course for the first time in two decades.

And at the University of Tennessee this spring, geography professors' courses were so popular that they had to turn students away.

To many proponents of geography education, these are signs that their discipline, having once nearly disappeared from the school curriculum, is making a comeback. "It's the golden age for geography right now,'' says Robert Dulli, the assistant vice president of the geography education division of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. "The opportunities for kids to learn geography haven't been this available for the last 50 years.''

While not everyone in the field of geography agrees that a golden age has fully dawned, there is widespread agreement that the signs are encouraging.

And experts say the resurgence of interest in geography education has been spawned by a complex array of factors. They include: an extraordinary commitment on the part of the National Geographic Society and other professional geographic organizations to promoting geography teaching; the subject's position on the winning end of a political tugof-war over what should go in the school curriculum; public disenchantment over American students' ignorance in the subject area; and, most of all, Americans' growing sense of the United States' interdependence with the world's other nations.

"I think there's an increasing recognition that the future of the United States is going to be conditioned, to a large part, on what we know about the rest of the world,'' says Sidney Jumper, a University of Tennessee geography professor. "And some of our students didn't even know they lived in North America.''

Once an integral part of the curriculum, geography began to fade from view after World War II. It was absorbed in the growing movement toward a more integrated approach to teaching the social sciences. Under that philosophy, geography began sharing time in the classroom with history, economics, political science, government, civics, and other subjects now commonly considered part of social studies.

Geography was easily lost in the shuffle, many observers say, because it often was poorly taught. Narrowly defined and relying heavily on rote memorization of facts, the subject was "boring'' for both students and their teachers.

By the mid-1970s, according to one national survey, the percentage of 7th to 12th graders enrolled in geography courses had dropped to 9 percent. This lack of attention became evident in the 1980s, when international and regional surveys began to hint at Americans' ignorance of the subject.

In a 1983 Dallas Times-Herald survey, for example, more than a fifth of that city's elementary students could not locate the United States on a world map. In a 10nation Gallup Poll of adult geographic knowledge conducted in 1988 and 1989, Americans ranked among the bottom third, with those between ages 18 and 24 coming in last. And on a trial National Assessment for Educational Progress test in geography conducted in 1988, high school seniors responded correctly, on average, to only 57 percent of the 67 multiple-choice questions.

At about the same time, the American Association of Geographers and the National Council for Geographic Education formed a joint committee to draw up guidelines for improving the teaching of the subject. The product of their efforts, a pamphlet published in 1984 called Guidelines for Geographic Education, outlines five fundamental themes for teaching geography.

Considerable clout was added to such efforts in 1985 when the venerable National Geographic Society began what its president and chairman, Gilbert Grosvenor, has called "a full-court press'' to promote geography education. The 10-million-member organization formed formal alliances of educators, geographers, and policymakers in 47 states and established a permanent endowment to support the cause. It also began holding four-week summer institutes for teachers, with the stipulation that the teachers would return to their school districts and share what they had learned with their colleagues. The society has spent or committed more than $70 million in its seven-year-long campaign.

Despite the high profile lent to the effort by the society, some educators were caught by surprise when President Bush and the nation's governors included the infrequently taught subject as one of only five disciplines mentioned in the national education goals. "As a country, we are constantly surprised by political and economic events that occur in places we've never heard of and involve people we don't understand,'' says former Gov. Gerald Baliles of Virginia. "We no longer can afford it.''

While there are no hard data on the degree to which geography is now being taught in the schools, some anecdotal evidence suggests the campaign in behalf of the subject is starting to pay off:

  • Participation in national student geography competitions has increased greatly. The number of students participating in the National Geography Bee sponsored by National Geographic, for example, has doubled since 1989, reaching 6 million this year.
  • In recent years, public universities or university systems in four states--Minnesota, California, Colorado, and Tennessee-- have taken steps to require at least one course in geography for admission.
  • The number of precollegiate geography textbooks on the market has increased, according to a recent survey, from 21 three years ago to more than 30 this year.

"When I first started teaching geography, it was difficult to find good teaching materials,'' says Michael Roessler, a Portland, Mich., high school teacher whose students recently won top honors in the annual American Express geography competition. "In the last 10 years, there's been a virtual explosion of materials.''

Still, some experts express caution over how permanent the new attention to geography will be. Compounding the uncertainty, some observers say, is the inherently "horizontal'' nature of the discipline. More than some disciplines, geography is easily integrated into history, earth science, and a variety of other subjects in the school curriculum. And some experts still contend that it is best taught that way rather than as a stand-alone course. "It's a very crowded curriculum out there,'' warns Frederick Czarra, who is conducting a study on international education for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Still, an increasing number of educators argue that separate geography courses are needed. "Geography, like history, is a way of thinking about the world,'' says Ruth Shirey of the National Council for Geographic Education. "It does have its own perspective.''

Many proponents caution, however, that it is not enough simply to bring back geography to the curriculum; great care must be taken to ensure that "the right kind of geography'' is taught. "A lot of times, if you ask somebody, 'Are you teaching geography?' and they say, 'Oh, yes, I have all my students learn the state capitals and the nations' capitals,' says Sarah Bednarz, the co-coordinator of the Texas Alliance for Geographic Education. "That's not the kind of geography we're talking about.''

While that kind of basic knowledge remains integral to the discipline, the new view calls for a broader, more analytical, and cohesive approach to the topic than much of what traditionally has been taught. The Guidelines for Geographic Education, drawn up by the AAG and the NCGE, encourage teachers to focus on five themes: location, where things are on the Earth's surface; place, encompassing the physical and human characteristics of places; relationships within places, which takes in the interrelationships between humans and their environments; movement, how humans interact on the Earth; and regions, which involves looking at how regions form and change.

"There's an applicability to geography that has an immediacy to students' own lives,'' says James Marran, the chairman of the geography department at New Trier High School. "That's something schools have tended to ignore.''

This new mode of instruction is typified in the kind of classroom project that Roessler's class in Michigan undertook to win the American Express national competition.

The class's project was to determine whether their tiny Midwestern town could--or should--support a major, enclosed shopping mall. They scouted possible locations with the help of local planning and zoning officials. They interviewed students in another small Midwestern town with a new discount mall to find out how it had affected their community. They interviewed managers at that mall to determine if their customers also shopped at local businesses. They looked at traffic patterns and discussed the potential impact of the proposed mall on the environment. Eventually, the students decided against the idea.

While proponents applaud this kind of teaching and the greater prominence geography appears to have achieved, others wonder whether students are truly learning more about the subject. The most recent national study of students' knowledge of geography was conducted by NAEP in 1988. A small-scale international study soon to be released by the Educational Testing Service, however, could provide a glimmer of hope.

While the ETS is providing few details of the results of the 27question survey, some experts say it is expected to show American students ranking "somewhere in the middle'' among the nations tested. ---Debra Viadero

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