For several years, leaders in education, government, and business have bemoaned our students’ geographic illiteracy. In international comparative tests, we routinely rank at the bottom, with some students unable to locate even their own country on a world map. In response to this poor showing, geography has been designated one of five core subjects in which U.S. students must prove their competence by the year 2000.
Toward this end, a sampling of students will take geography tests in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades beginning in 1994 as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In almost every state, geographers are working with elementary and secondary school teachers in Geographic Alliances to develop creative resources and teacher-training programs in order to improve geography education. A National Geography Education Standards Project aims to set a high, but attainable, level of geography teaching at all grade levels across the country. And private organizations, such as the National Geographic Society and the American Express Co., are sponsoring nationwide competitions designed to stimulate student interest in geography.
The success of this national full-court press to wipe out geographic ignorance, though, lies not with presidential proclamations but with not-so-worldly students, their harried teachers, and their perplexed parents. Most parents remember geography as the boring recitation of state capitals; because they still remember that Pierre is the capital of South Dakota, they think they understand geography. So what is all the fuss about? We will just have a nationwide crash course on place names and country locations and, presto, we will no longer have to hang our collective heads in shame.
Unfortunately, many teachers went to the same schools as the parents and view geography with the same blinders. With many competing demands, there is little wonder that geography has tumbled down the list of daily teaching priorities. Some teachers may envision meeting the nation’s geography education goals by handing out homework assignments that ask students to fill in a map of the United States or list the resources of some distant country. Such “teaching,” however, will fail to meet the national geography education standards being promulgated and will assuredly condemn yet another generation of students to the scrapheap of geography.
Most students are probably unaware that a battery of geographic tests is in store for them. It’s just as well; many couldn’t care less how they compare with students in other countries. For them, a more pressing question is, “How is geography relevant to me?” If we cannot answer this reasonable question, we should resign ourselves to the continued bliss of geographic ignorance.
The goal of improving geographic teaching should not be to ratchet up future test scores; rather, it should be to turn on the MTV generation to the dramatic change going on in the world around them. Place-location drills and country reports copied from an encyclopedia will never give students the sense of excitement, discovery, and relevance that geography can offer. Here is my list of four “don’ts” for a sound education:
• Don’t confuse geography with location memorization. Yes, it is important to know where places are (especially your own home), but it is even more important to understand why places are located where they are and how they got there. Some of the questions geography students should be encouraged to think and write about would include: how their parents or grandparents came to reside where they do; where items purchased on the latest trip to the grocery or department store came from and how they were produced and transported; and how land uses in their neighborhood, city, and county have changed over the past several decades. Most of these studies will transcend city, state, and national boundaries and give insight into the economic and political forces that influence our daily lives.
• Don’t limit geography to map making and don’t limit map making to geography. I’ve never met a geographer who didn’t like maps, but they usually use them as a tool to help explain some issue or process. Cartography, the art and science of map making, is undergoing mind-boggling leaps with the assistance of computer-generated graphics. But more important than plugging into the latest mapping program is proper guidance on how to use a map to tell a story or to solve a problem. Well-conceived and well-designed maps enhance almost any social or earth science project, especially those projects dealing with environmental problems.
• Don’t get hung up on defining geography. Like the blind men feeling their way around different parts of an elephant, every geographer will give a somewhat different account of what geography is or should be. Most would agree that one of geography’s longstanding goals has been to bridge the schism between social and natural sciences. Long before ecology became a household word, geographers were studying the dynamic relationship between people and their environments. Geographers also tend to emphasize relationships between places and regions, which can be measured by flows of people, goods, and most important of all, ideas.
• Don’t forget that geography is integrative. Of all social scientists, geographers are perhaps the most open to the theories and experiments of other disciplines. We geographers have to be more receptive because our curiosity about the world keeps leading us across the silly academic divisions that inhibit biologists from talking to historians. We’ll talk to anybody who can help us better understand the complex interplay of people and places, particularly now when our world is faced with so many difficult challenges. More than any set of learned facts, this multidisciplinary perspective on issues that span from the local to the global is the most valuable geography lesson of all.
I am not a teacher, so these suggestions may be somewhat presumptuous, but as the geographer for the U.S. State Department, I have a vested interest that the next generation of U.S. diplomats and businesspeople have a solid background in geography. Although improving the quality of geographic education will require a long-term commitment by parents, teachers, and students, they will find geography to be the most stimulating of subjects. And also the most fun.
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 1984 edition of Education Week as Remapping Geography