The Neglect Of Geography And Its Perils

by Norman Berdichevsky (May 2008)

In 1843, Jared Sparks (1789-1866), a future President of Harvard (1849-54) while a student there, authored a clarion call for the inclusion of geography in the curriculum of America's colleges. Sparks spoke at a Harvard College debating group, and began…

"Few studies are more useful, few more easily attained, and none more universally neglected, than that of geography."

He developed this thesis noting geography's importance in understanding historical events as well as contemporary commerce and political occurrences at home and abroad. His talk ended with calling for the explicit inclusion of geography in the "course of liberal education" rather than leaving students to their own devices to acquire its gifts of understanding.

Did a hundred and fifty years dreadful experience of America’s neglect of geography come to the attention of our leaders in education and political life, given the woeful isolationist,  provincial attitudes or base geographic ignorance prevailing on the eve of World Wars I and II, Vietnam or Iraq?

Many Americans suffer from geographic illiteracy and regard the subject much like a spelling bee--trivia to be memorized and repeated on demand with no analytical power. The key question of Why are things where they are? is never asked. Knowing geographical facts such as that the Himalayas and Andes are the highest mountain chains in the world contributes no understanding of plate tectonics and the resultant effects on climate, and the impact on human settlement for the people who live on opposite sides of these great mountains. The reluctance to incorporate and classify many facts into relevant explanatory factors contributes to the naive and wholly wrong idea that geography cannot be a science because it deals only with "unique" places.

There is, however, another level of geographic knowledge which is particularly rewarding but seldom communicated to the average pupil--places are not only different, they are similar: It is not by chance that the coasts of Norway and Chile in opposite hemispheres but similar latitudes resemble each other with deep fjords and beautiful glaciers, or that rent, property value and intensity of land use decline from the city center towards the periphery all over the world.

Geographers legitimately complain that their discipline is misunderstood by the general public for whom it remains a hangover from primary and secondary schools where it meant the rote memorization of inventories: the capitals of countries, the heights of mountains and lengths of rivers; facts such as China has lots of rice and Arabia lots of oil…. In our grandparents' time, they learned that Belgium and the Northern Midlands of England had lots of coal, but today these regions have exhausted their supplies and are now net importers.

Geography is not a static inventory of unrelated facts. Knowing the location of landscapes, climates, industries and cultures without understanding the relationships between them is much like knowing important dates in history without understanding how events created changes and have influenced the political, economic and social realities in different societies. History is more than a calendar and geography is more than a map.

Geography explains and analyzes why things are where they are, and not somewhere else. Even if we have not personally experienced earthquakes, volcanoes, floods or famines, we are all more aware today through television and sophisticated techniques of remote sensing of the changing face of the earth's surface--rivers change their course, mountains rise, coastlines sink, fertile cropland may become exhausted through poor techniques of cultivation, and irrigation may make the desert bloom.

Geographers should fault themselves for not having tried to make "chorology" an everyday word. Today, not even Scrabble players are familiar with it, yet it is intuitively understood and can help us appreciate analyzing the logic (logos) there is in the concept of place (khoros). The things geographers study are the same phenomena that we all notice immediately in a new environment.

Since most of us live in cities today, these are not so much the differences in the immediately apparent visible physical landscape of climate, rocks, terrain, plants and animals, but more significantly the "Human Geography" of an area--the numbers, density, distribution and features of people and their settlements, culture, habits, activities and works. These phenomena are individually studied in isolation by their respective systematic sciences. Yet we are intuitively aware that very few things can be analyzed and remain static in the "laboratory" state of the social or physical sciences which assume that "all other things being equal, it follows that x = y (or some other mathematically disguised generalization with which the social sciences have embellished themselves).

However, we all know that all things do not remain equal and x does not equal y when we move from place to place, not even gravity (it differs between the equator and the poles). And whereas the speed of light is a constant, the whole basis of Einstein's relativity theory is that the perceived and even measured passage of time will vary depending on how fast we are moving towards or away from the source of light.

Geographers cannot stomach a "characterless place"--this is tantamount to a "placeless place." The process of getting to know a place means discovering the interconnections of the phenomena which do give it a different character than our place or origin but which are not immediately apparent because they are so strange. This is akin to learning a foreign language that at first is just gibberish until slowly (and painfully because there are no shortcuts) it becomes meaningful, expressive and even eloquent or beautiful (to the connoisseur or linguist at least). Languages themselves never remain the same when transplanted to a "new world"--just listen to the differences in intonation and stress between British and American English, or Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, or Spanish and Argentinian Spanish.

Recently, on the Fox News television news program, two of the very well known commentators were bantering about beer due to the presence of a huge Heineken billboard visible through the studio window. Commentator A remarked how the Germans no longer made Heineken their number one choice (Heineken is of course a venerated Dutch product, known and loved the world over)--only to be scorned by his colleague, commentator B, who sarcastically responded that Heineken’s popularity was well deserved as the most famous DANISH product (he stressed each syllable slowly and loudly …. DA-NISH ….to drive home his awareness of his colleague’s ignorance), a "correction" that was greeted by loud laughter from everyone else in the studio demonstrating to the viewers that A and B were both equally ignorant.

As many of my students taking a serious course in human geography for the first time would ask me….. “So what ?  Who Cares?" The answer is that as soon as we leave our immediate surroundings, and especially our own country, we must appreciate what is special and unique about a different place. Which side of the road people drive on? (or you will soon feel the consequences). We must learn to communicate in another language (or be reduced to gestures and the level of communication of a two-year-old). We should know about the stability of the local currency and government (or else risk having our vacation terminated by revolution and being stuck with worthless currency), and countless other significant differences.

Without knowledge of geography, we cannot appreciate fully our home environment, which is uniquely ours, or how it conditions, shapes and limits our actions and perspectives, and restricts or empowers us. If you play baseball on a basketball field, aren’t aware of the time differences according to where you are on the earth’s surface, compliment a Dane on the good quality of a Dutch or German beer (instead of his world famous Tuborg or Carlsberg), then you will definitely confirm to all those you come in contact with beyond your neighborhood that you are not to be trusted, much like a small child.

As recently as 1989, The General Assembly (State Legislature) of Pennsylvania passed House Resolution No. 189 declaring a “Geography Awareness Week” in the State. It would have been more fitting for the U.S. Congress to pass it but the results would probably have been equally fruitless. Unless there is drastic action, Americans will continue to rank as among the most unaware peoples of their surroundings, both cultural-historical and environmental-physical.

The Pennsylvania resolution included among its many citations that….

WHEREAS, The United States of America is a truly unique nation with diverse landscapes, bountiful resources, a distinctive multiethnic population, and a rich cultural heritage, all of which contribute to the status of the United States as a world power; and Historically, geography has aided Americans in understanding the wholeness of their vast nation and the great abundance of its natural resources;

Whereas Geography today offers perspectives and information in understanding ourselves, our relationship to the earth, and our interdependence with other peoples of the world; and Statistics illustrate that a significant number of American students could not find the United States on a world map, and Departments of geography are being eliminated from American institutes of higher learning, thus endangering the discipline of geography in the United States; and Traditional geography has virtually disappeared from the curricula of American schools while still being taught as a basic subject in other countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the Soviet Union;

And whereas ….that ignorance of geography, foreign languages, and cultures places the United States at a disadvantage with other countries in matters of business, politics, and the environment;

Be It RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania declare the week of November 12 through 18, 1989, as "Geography Awareness Week" in Pennsylvania and call upon the Governor to issue a proclamation asking the people of Pennsylvania to observe the week with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

Geography is an important antidote to the infantile habit of thinking the world is a laboratory in which we can carry out all kinds of experiments, or a huge rubbish heap where we can get rid of all our trash. As David Landes warned in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, "Geography tells an unpleasant truth, namely, that nature, like life, is unfair; unequal in its favors; further that nature's unfairness is not easily remedied. A civilization like ours, with its drive to mastery, does not like to be thwarted. It disapproves of discouraging words, which geographic comparisons abound in."

Nothing can be understood apart from the place where it occurs. No event, situation, problem in nature or human history has much meaning until it is examined against its geographical background. Geography studies the location, extent, distribution, frequency and interaction of all significant elements of the human and physical environment on the earth's surface. They are not just present or absent but found to co-exist in recognizable patterns. They do so not in random, unpredictable relationships by accident or coincidence. Their distribution and extent, whether it is mineral wealth, traffic flows, good agricultural soils, pollution, health hazards, population growth, or economic development and political alliances, can often be explained and even predicted.

Ignorance of geography has been compounded by the abolition of geography departments in such elite universities as Harvard and Yale, while the subject has a long and distinguished history in the leading British universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge. Roger Downs, a Pennsylvania State University professor of geography explains, "If geography is not in the curriculum, - that says to the students that it is not valued." The message is transmitted clearly that geography simply doesn't matter.

“No child left behind?” This has been one of the popular and hollow political catch-words used in recent electoral campaigns in the U.S. How far behind was “Beauty queen” and contestant Lauren Caitlin Upton, a hopeful in the recent “Miss USA Teen Pageant 2007”? She outdid Grouch Marx’s best one-lines with her off-the-cuff response as to why one-fifth of Americans can’t locate the United States on a world map. Her explanation was….” I personally believe that ….uh… Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some people out there in our nation don't have maps". These poor folks are obviously another group of deprived people in need of new cartographic entitlements. One is left wondering if the USA will ever restore geography to the exalted place which it once held in the educational system to the dump heap where it now resides.

This embarrassing and painful episode is one of many that are repeated with frequent regularity. Lest I appear sexist, I am certain that beauty is not correlated with ignorance and there are probably an equal number of unattractive teens of both sexes and yes, even older Americans who are woefully ignorant of what was once called “The Queen of the Sciences” (although Theology and Mathematics as well as Philosophy have also claimed this title).

Space on the surface of the earth is a measurable dimension, defined first and foremost by the grid of latitude and longitude. This space is first located by means of this grid and then objectively measured by units such as square feet or miles. The third dimension of relief and altitude is portrayed by topographic contours and distances above or below the datum line we recognize as "sea-level." Anyone who had ever been to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina and walked along the river bank in the downtown area must have noticed that they were looking up to see the river, a fact that always posed a crucial warning for anyone considering residence in that city.

These dimensions can also be used to map and "know" the moon (except sea-level, which of course is absent there). However the areal differentiation of the moon remains static (except for the disruption caused by the fall of an occasional meteorite). It cannot be examined from the chorological point of view and analysis. Man and his works and methods of exploiting moon environments are absent (as of now).

"Lunography" is just a static inventory of the distribution of space features on the surface of the moon (mountains, craters). If valuable minerals were discovered however they could then be mapped to produce an "areal differentiation" of potentially valuable places, but would remain an inventory until man began to colonize the moon and impose his "extra-lunar" geography.

Even on Earth, the task of building a fourth major airport for London is of one specific dimension for the civil engineers who require simply an amount of so many thousands of square feet to lay out runways, but as soon as their engineering needs are finalized, the site of the airport has to be located in real space, i.e. a place on the surface of the Earth close enough to make commuter journeys to the airport convenient without the proximity to residents who are politically sophisticated, and would object to such exposure to noise and pollution.

Existing traffic patterns would have to be taken into consideration and the number of available potential sites for such an airport, already limited, would dwindle to a few. Potential sites would also be subject to intense debate because the introduction of a new airport in a particular place would have direct consequences for all those who would use it or live near it.

A favorite metaphor makes clear the distinction between the geographic approach and other disciplines. Imagine a field trip with a class on a bus traveling through a new area. Historians, political scientists and sociologists may doze off if nothing of historical, political or sociological interest occurred in the region to somehow make it distinct from other places. Geographers, however, will keep wide-awake as they seek to take in, assimilate, and explain all they experience in the physical and cultural landscape as it unfolds and changes.

The dangers of ignoring important cultural and physical realities or assuming that they can be made to resemble our own world and thus be managed similarly have been the downfall of many well-meant policies. No feebler analogy has been used than that often employed by the present administration and President Bush with regard to Iraq.

The analogy seeks to explain that the difficulties and the necessary length of time required in order to create a coalition government among different ethnic and religious population groups are analogous to those the populations of the thirteen American colonies faced after the Revolution and failure of the Articles of Confederation. Since "all people love liberty," purportedly proved by the high turnout in the various free elections held after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, the basis should exist for eventual compromise to make Iraq a functioning democracy.

Even among those who supported the two wars against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, there are many skeptics aware of the profound cultural and political differences and the inherent dangers in assuming any parallel analogy between Colonial America and contemporary the Middle East. Colonial Americans were almost all Englishmen who came to the conclusion that the Crown had usurped their rights.

They bound their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to regain those rights. The indigenous Iraqi Muslim Arabs and Kurds have lived in societies where such rights and expectations were unknown and religious obligations precluded the development of what we know as a civil society based on equality before the law, freedom of expression and religion, and the other civil rights embodied in the Bill of Rights, such as elected representatives and an independent judiciary. The lack of these concepts are geographic facts that characterize Iraq as much as the arid climate and the great reserves of oil.

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