Monday, January 12, 2009

Classic Gauze: The Call for Geography

Catholicgauze has long supported the return to geography and Bringing Back Geography is no different. Fighting for academic recognition, putting tools in their proper place, and defeating political radicalism are all steps we need to take.
Originally published June 24, 2007

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.


Dan tdaxp said...

I was once at a seminar with a department chair who said the following (he was being completely sincere):

"At the last conference I went to, I discovered that geographic is a real social science. They have variables, they look at problems, and they come up with solutions. I had no idea."

Deaner said...


I'd just like to say that students are hungry for Geography. I'm just starting my second semester teaching at a relatively large community college (about 20,000 students). I am the only full-time faculty member who teaches Geography. Enrollment in Geography classes have more than doubled since last semester and one third of my students from last semester are taking another Geography class from me this semester (no, they didn't all get 'A's).

I just think that it illustrates that many people don't understand what Geography really is until they take a class like Human Geography and see how it applies to their lives.

Claes Johansson said...

Hear hear,

I particularily agree that all geographers must fight for our tools.

There is such a plethora of applications today merging computers and geography that have become available to the mainstream. At the same time we have tools like ArcGIS aimed at a more specialized grooup of people.

From my standpoint geographers should educate their use not just from the current very technical standpoint, but how to integrate them in social sciences and how to use them for strong geographic analysis.