I learned then that one can never know enough geography— or, to put it another way, one must learn more geography whenever one endeavors to learn more history. That is why it is so disheartening that most Americans emerge from their schooling as functional illiterates in geography despite the fact that 90 percent of U.S. adults consider some geographical knowledge a prerequisite to being a well-rounded person. The poll, conducted on behalf of the National Geographic Society, showed that only one-third of Americans could name a single country in NATO and that half could not name any members of the rival Warsaw Pact. The average adult could identify only four European countries from their outlines on a map, and less than six of the fifty United States. One in four could not find the Pacific Ocean. What is more, the group that performed the worst in the survey were those aged between 18 and 24, a finding that would not surprise those of us who teach history in universities. For it appears that many American students were not even given a chance to learn much geography in their elementary and high school years. Why is that? Is it because educators have just been unaware of the importance of geography to many branches of knowledge, not least history? Is it because they once knew, but have forgotten? Is it because geography seems to involve rote learning of “boring” facts rather than development of the “thinking” faculties? Is it because the influential political-correctness and multiculturalist movements are suspicious of a subject that emphasizes distinctions among regions, invites unflattering comparisons and hierarchy among nations and cultures, and has been used in the past as an intellectual tool of empire? Is it because geography just seems passe in an era when communications technology, commerce, and ideas “transcend boundaries” and make the earth a “global village”? Or is it because geographers themselves have failed to define and promote their subject?
Whatever the answer (it is probably “all of the above”), the Rediscovering Geography Committee, appointed by the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources of the National Research Council in 1997, lamented not only the “astonishing degree of ignorance in the United States about the rest of the world,” but that most people think of geography as a matter of memorizing place names. The committee rebutted, “A central tenet of geography is that location matters for understanding a wide variety of processes and phenomena. Indeed, geography’s focus on location provides a cross-cutting way of looking at processes and phenomena that other disciplines tend to treat in isolation. Geographers focus on ‘real-world’ relationships and dependencies….”
That would seem to be such a commonsense proposition that no one would challenge it. It is, in fact, the first fundamental reason why geography is indispensable to a sound school curriculum. We are all geographers, after all, from the moment we learn to navigate the playpen or find the bathroom and refrigerator, to the years we explore theneighborhood on our bicycles and take a family vacation, to the careers we pursue as adults. The general, admiral, or statesman is a geographer, but so too is the common soldier or sailor, the corporate executive deciding where to build a plant and which markets to target, but so too the salesperson, not to mention the farmer, fisherman, miner, oil worker, pilot, engineer, truck or taxi driver, real estate agent, manufacturer, consumer or, for that matter, golfer.
What happens next, usually in secondary school, is that the student who was originally enthralled just by the sheer variety of the world and its people, begins to ask, not only “what?” and “where?” but “why?” and “how?” Why are deserts or rain forests here and not there? Why do Asians eat rice and Mexicans tortillas, instead of bread? Why did the Europeans discover routes to China instead of the Chinese discovering routes to Europe? Why did democracy emerge in Greece and not Egypt? How didthe colonial powers manage to conquer the world, and how did today’s two hundred odd countries emerge? What is a “country,” for that matter, and why are some big, rich, populous, and mighty, while others are small, poor, or weak? Asking such questions inspired by geography opens up a universe of intellectual inquiry, because to answer them the student must turn to geology, oceanography, meteorology, and astronomy, anthropology, economics, comparative religion, sociology, and history. Geography is the window on the world of the mind as well as the senses, and can be dispensed with no more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. To educate, after all, means to “lead out” (educo, in Latin), and no subject leads the student out of the narrow, familiar, and “taken for granted” better than geography. That is the second reason why it is indispensable in a sound curriculum.
Yet a third reason why geography is fundamental to true education is that students without geographic knowledge are helpless when confronted by adult issues, whether in school or outside of it. Geography is vital to the examination of economic competition, poverty, environmental degradation, ethnic conflict, health care, global warming, literature and culture, and, needless to say, international relations. But the universality of geography’s relevance has perversely contributed to its demise as a subject in its own right. As Malcolm Douglass observes, “The strange fact of the matter is that the role of geography in the school curriculum is at once anomalous and ubiquitous. Geography lacks a clear identity…. Nonetheless, by its very nature, geography is integral to all human inquiry. It is difficult, or even impossible, to separate what is geographic from what is not. In this sense, then, geography is everywhere in the school curriculum. The major problem, both for geographers and geographic educators, and for all curriculum planners and teachers, is to find ways to acknowledge and act on this reality.”