Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bringing Back Geography

Without geography you become the next Cameron Diaz or CNN links to the must read essay of the year entitled Bring Back Geography! The essay is long but well worth one's time. I will not summarize the essay but touch on key points and offer thoughts.

Three Main Points Catholicgauze and the Essay Agree

Geography Gets No Respect
When I was earning my degrees I was constantly asked what I was studying in school. I replied, of course, "geography." Almost every time the reply back was "What are you going to do? Teach?" Too many people think geography is just remembering countries and the three main exports. It is because of this that university close down geography departments. With little upper level education, teachers and other college students get no proper geographical education. No good teachers means geographical illiteracy becomes common in a society.

Geographers Are Partly to Blame for the No Respect
I told a friend something important when we were helping out the state Geography Bee. I said something along the lines of "You know how we always claim geography is more than place trivia? What are we doing here?" When studies by National Geographic and others exemplify how kids do not know geography, we make it appear geography is place trivia and for kids. I hate to brag about we need more Catholicgauzes in the world (a horrible thought!). There are dozens of excellent blogs out about geotechnology but how many geography blogs are there? Geographers need to be interacting with people showing what geography is.

Geographic Illiteracy Ranges from Embarrassing to Insulting to Dangerous
The risks involved with being geographic illiteracy are numerous. You can embarrass yourself like CNN did by labeling Syria as Afghanistan, you can insult the inhabitants of the country you are visiting by making the symbol of group that murdered 70,000 of your country men chic like Cameron Diaz did, or you can greatly minimize your effectiveness as an army like General David Petraeus realizes in observation nine [PDF]. Geographers must teach the public how things operate in a globalized world. We need to tell people how an economic downturn in China will change their shopping habits or if tribes in Nigeria become angry then oil price will shoot up. We must also go beyond human geography. Geographers can take the lead in discussions on the environment but so far we remain silent.

Three Extra Fights

Fight for Our Right
Today a popular thing for universities to do is multidisciplinary programs. Geographers work well with other disciplines. However we must protect our turf at all cost. We excel by nature at area studies, environmental sciences, and GIS. Any attempt to spin these off to another department or as an independent branch must be opposed. Also, any attempt to merge geography with another department makes it a grab bag of left overs.

Fight "The Infection"
You know Catholicgauze very well if you know the first time this came up. An anti-establishment disease crossed over from European departments to American ones. Too many geographers refuse to participate with military operations (there was a debate in several geographical journals over this issue after 9/11), in mainstream studies of globalization (the best work on the subject, Commanding Heights, noticeably lacks a geographer's input), or any other study "the corporate machines of the world want us to do." That is a real quote. Geographers waste their gifts and will be replaced by others if they insists in locking themselves in their ivy-tower prisons.

Fight for Proper Use of Tools
When I was teaching Environmental Geography lab I allowed students to use my laptop's version of Google Earth. The students looked up their houses and then stopped. They saw no further use. Then I showed them various layers such as weather and earthquakes around the world. I used the displayed data to convey spatial themes behind climate zones and the Ring of Fire. The students then realized Google Earth was not a mere earth viewer but a tool to help explaining geography.

Too often geographers let tools take a life of their own. I have warned against this. When a president of a major geographical association went to Harvard to celebrate its new GIS lab, he erred. The GIS tool was taken by others at the school and geography lost its right and place at Harvard.

Parting Thought
I could repeat the phrase "geography matters" but that would be preaching to the choir. Geographers need to reach out to the public, to school teachers, to leaders what geography is and how geographical knowledge can aid in many situations.


Peter said...

I definitely hear you --- I've been interested in geography for several years now since I graduated as an undergrad and then met a slew of great European geographers -- I wish I had studied it before, but it never even seemed a higher-education option in this country.

Now that I am considering going to get my MA in human geography, I am trying to find out about programs in America. I can find a ton about international programs, especially in Western Europe -- but America? not much. Does catholicgauze know of any rankings of American MA programs, or a website/book/journal with solid comparisons of the programs. Most importantly, where did catholicgauze study?

Catholicgauze said...

Hi Peter,
The Association of American Geographers releases the annual "The Guide to Geography Programs in the Americas" which lists each program in the Americas, who teaches there, how many students, specialties, and more. Try getting it from a library (its a tad bit expensive at the student price of $25).

What type of human geography do you plan to study (Population, geopolitics, urban studies, etc)? I would be more than happy to compile a list if I knew what you want to study. So many schools excel at a subfield of human geography while lacking in other areas.

Catholicgauze studied in the Midwest. My undergraduate education was at a school which focused on technical geography. I had to get three minors to round myself out. My masters was (technically "is" because I am wrapping up writing the evil beast known as "thesis")earned at a school that is shifting from human geography to a more technical and physical path. Still good but the winds of change have been felt.

Peter said...

I'll look for the AAG guide ... I am interested in a few things that I've run into in reading and travelling:

1) planning for climate change in coastal urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa (Cape Town and the Cape Flats are the best example)

& 2) displacement/urbanization of nomads by the state on the north-eastern Tibetan plateau

& 3) broadly, the very varied situations of stateless/overlooked nations (Somaliland, Tibetans, Kurds, etc..)

McGill has a professor focusing on the first and a university in Zurich's whole geography department focuses on the 2nd -- but, there must be some great options in America too. Thanks for the tips -- and the blog, I just found you and am greatly enjoying reading through the archives. Good luck with the thesis ---

Catholicgauze said...

For the first one I would recommend the University of Wisconsin - Madison). Other top schools would be University of Minnesota, University of Maryland, or one of the state universities in California.

I am not as sure for #2. But Kansas State's department head and former AAG president Richard Marston is very interested in Tibetan studies. He would be a better person to ask.

Number three I would favor a school like George Washington University or Kent State.

Above all else feel free to contact these departments. If they are interested in your projects they'll recruit you in no time. If not, they will tell you who would be interested in you.

Peter said...

Thank you catholicgauze -- lots of info to work with. I'll keep on researching and emailing.

Flax said...

I started reading the atlas at a very young age and had absorbed a lot of "geography knowledge" by middle school - but it was mostly just the trivia you speak of. It wasn't until I got to college that I found out how much else fell under the heading, and I was shocked to find that the geography department at my school (Northwestern) consisted of a single professor. A lot of people are probably too quick to move things that fall under the heading of geography into other, more important-sounding categories, like "politics" or "economics," failing to realize that the whole thing is like a giant Venn diagram.

torgo jr. said...

a stunningly (is that a real word?) accurate assessment of the state of the discipline.

it is difficult to demonstrate to students that geography is more than maps, capitals, and exports when the 100 level intro course is something laughably broad, like....World Regional Geography. departments should offer either a physical or human geography course as the introductory course, either way you go, students will be exposed to "how" and "why" geography works, and not a mind-numbing semester full of factoids.

btw/ did you know that Brazil is the world's leading exporter of coffee?

Catholicgauze said...

Great point Torgo Junior!

Jude said...

A big part of the problem is the way geography is taught in high schools. My kids have been using Google Earth for at least 3 years. They understand the simple concepts. They ache to learn more, but geography education waters it down. You can't learn anything exciting about geography in high school (unless you have a fanatic parent who reads too many geography blogs and inflicts knowledge on you). Elementary/middle is worse. Last night at my online job, a kid needed a definition of a culture region. That was difficult to find. It's something about the 5 concepts of geography? Anyway, it's boring and stupid. Tell me the main foods of Colorado. Colorado isn't a different country. We eat the same foods as the rest of the US, pretty much. What an insipid and ultimately meaningless question.