Who needs geography?

I’ve never read National Geographic much, but I’ve always appreciated it as a good source of photographs. When I was a Spanish teacher, I looked for used copies of the magazine to provide pictures depicting the people and culture of Spanish-speaking countries. More recently, since getting a computer fast enough to view nationalgeographic.com without frustratingly long load times, I’ve enjoyed looking at photos there, mostly of unusual animals.

What I never thought of much in connection with National Geographic was geography. Sure, it has that word in its name, but that was because it got pictures (and articles) from all over the globe. I did get some maps for my Spanish classes from those magazines also, but that was just sort of a bonus added in with the magazine.

So I found myself slightly surprised, this evening, to see the headline “Why We Need Geography.” My first thought was something along the lines of “geography isn’t something you can decide to have or not – the rivers and mountains and continents are there, whether you study them or not.” But then I realized that wasn’t what the article meant – it was about why we need to study geography. (I do tend to take things overly literally sometimes.)

When I was in school, geography was a non-subject. My older sister had learned the names of the fifty states and their capitals; those of us going through the same schools six years later didn’t even have to learn the fifty states. (Like many things, I had learned them from my sister, who had a jigsaw puzzle of the United States that she urged me to learn to put together without using the border outline to guide me.)

I learned bits and pieces of world geography from social studies. When we studied WWII, we had to learn to identify the countries involved in the war on a map of western Europe. I knew the continents, and I had a general idea where China and Japan were. When I went to Bible school, I learned the geography of the Holy Land (not just Israel but also Egypt and other countries that enter the Biblical stories). When I got my degree in Spanish, I learned the geography of Spain and Latin America.

As an adult, I started trying to learn the location of countries in the news. I still would probably fail a geography test that required filling in a blank map of any continent (other than North America and Antarctica), but I can usually narrow down a country’s location to not only its continent but roughly what part of the continent. For a while a few years ago, I was having fun with an interactive online geography quiz, but I doubt that I retained much of what I learned doing it.

As I read the interview this evening, though, I realized that when Gil Grosvenor talks about knowing geography, he means a great deal more than knowing where places are on a map. In his understanding of the subject, that knowledge would be to geography what times tables are to mathematics. You can’t do much math without knowing basic math facts, but no one would argue that knowing the times tables (and let’s even throw in addition, squares and square roots, even Pythagorean triples and the Fibonacci series) means one has mastered mathematics.

Someone who could reproduce – from memory – all the maps in an atlas would be amazing, but in a world where atlases are readily available, such knowledge is not especially useful, by itself. What makes geography important is knowing not just where places are but knowing relevant information on their history, politics, culture, climate, and so forth. Grosvenor gives examples of the importance of knowing geography to farmers, real estate agents, and bankers.

One could easily come up with a longer list of professions where such knowledge matters, besides the obvious (travel agents, geologists, meteorologists, airplane pilots). But regardless of profession, every one of us needs to know the subject in order to be an informed voter. How can we evaluate our leaders’ proposals for foreign policy if we don’t know the historical, cultural, political, and economic background against which such decisions are made?

The same issues apply nationally and locally. Grosvenor uses the example of the Gulf oil spill, but it could as easily be western wildfires or midwestern flooding or the economic woes of the Big Three automakers. It’s easy to argue that the federal government needs to help – or that it shouldn’t help and the problems should be solved locally. But unless we know the local or regional geography – in the multidimensional sense in which Grosvenor uses the word – our opinions have little solid foundation.

Of course it’s much easier to recognize the problem than to solve it. And when some students struggle with basic reading and arithmetic, it’s hard to argue that we need to add another subject, one that most of today’s teachers probably know little of themselves. But the kind of study of geography Grosvenor is talking about is really multidisciplinary. You learn it largely in social studies classes, but it has overlap with science (geology, meteorology), literature (culture, religion, politics), and even some with mathematics (used to solve problems in economics).

Mostly what it takes is people thinking that it matters. And that it’s more than learning the names faraway places you will probably never visit.

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3 Responses to Who needs geography?

  1. Margaret says:

    Good post, Pauline. As you said, I learned the fifty states in elementary school. Then in sixth grade (okay, still elementary school in those days) we studied Latin America and its countries, although I never got it all memorized. Then in junior high school we similarly studied Africa. And like you, I had a general idea of western Europe and of east and southeast Asia, but much in the middle. But in college when I studied Russian, we learned a little about the Slavic countries. And I had a eureka moment: Oh, that’s where Yugoslavia is, I always wondered where in the world it was. (Of course Yugoslavia no longer exists as a country, but now I know where its components are still located.) And through my work proofreading catalogs of educational videos, I have learned the location of Middle Eastern/Asian countries such as Afghanistan. (Where is the western boundary of Asia, anyway? It can be confusing.) Fascinating stuff, even more so once you start learning about history and culture. I wonder why people don’t pay more attention to geography, especially in a country consisting of so many immigrants.

  2. Margaret says:

    Oops, I meant “not much in the middle.” And although Webster’s gives the boundary of Asia with Europe as being the Ural and Caucasus Mountains and says that Israel is in southwest Asia, I’ve never really thought of Israelis as being Asians, but then what are they? And if an Iranian is asked to give his or her race, what do they say? Asian?

  3. Carlos says:

    Hello. I liked alot to read this but at the same time i felt sad.
    I’m graduated in geography and regional planing.. that would make me a geographer, if i could get a job, which i cant because there are still milions of people who dont realise how importante geography is for most anything.
    I hope people’s “awereness” about geography change, as yours changed 🙂

    Cheers from Portugal

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