Monday, February 08, 2010

Interview with Harm de Blij

On the second day of graduate school I was asked by the professor who my favorite academic geographer was. After a brief moment to think I chose the geographer who has published probably the most popular geography textbooks in English, Dr. Harm J. de Blij. The professor responded with a shocked yet disappointed "oh" while a few other students giggled.

My response was dismissed by the others because de Blij's work was too mundane for them. De Blij foscused more on world geography with the studies of people, countries, and cultures. The others in the class preferred studying small niches of geography like hunting tourism, sexual spaces, ethnic neighborhoods, and exurbs in southern California. These niche geographers saw de Blij's work in world/regional geography as merely high school geography and not worthy of further pursuit. However, many of the students I taught have told me de Blij's books are the best geography texts they ever used and several geography majors and graduate students have shared with me the fact that de Blij was their reason for further studying geography. De Blij appealed to them, made geography interesting, and increased their geographical literacy.

I have had the honor of communicating with Dr. Harm J. de Blij. Below is the interview we conducted where we discuss the state of geography, upcoming geographical hotspots, and why don't geographers reach out more.

Beginning of Interview

Geographic Travels: As a graduate student I would ask other students to define geography. In a group setting it was interesting to see overlap and clashes between the various definitions (I must also admit that it was fun to have these groups discussion melt down into sparring matches between various people). What is your definition of geography?

Dr. de Blij: After my failed effort to give some focus to the question of geography's definition in Why Geography Matters, maybe I should demur on this one. I'm one of the shrinking cadre of geographers who continue to think that the overarching question "where" is our unifying preoccupation, but we're not the only ones using location and its vocabulary (proximity, juxtaposition, distance (decay), accessibility, etc. conceptually. I find myself turning to maps on a daily and continuing basis; find a globe still instructive after my half-century-plus of looking at it; and still feel that a mental map is a valuable part of general perception. Or what is that called these days? Spatial cognition? Well, probably nobody ever asks a historian "what is history" or a geologist "what is geology", although from what I hear about what's happening on campuses, geology as we came to know it seems to be history. In any case, geography is now so balkanized that it is, in a distinguished colleague's view, "everywhere."

Geographic Travels: The million dollar question that every geographer has an opinion on: how do you feel geographic education can be improved?

Dr. de Blij: The improvement of geographic education in the United States obviously depends on its wider inclusion in school curricula and the continuing improvement of teacher-education and training. The former relies on enlightened educational policy and school administration and the latter on money and equipment, all in short supply. It's not actually a million-dollar question; it's a billion-dollar question.

Geographic Travles: According to international studies and personal observations by the bloggers at Geographic Travels, many people do not see the relevance of geography. How can geographers demonstrate the importance of the subject to the general population?

Dr. de Blij: I'm surprised at those international studies you cite, because geography's relevance is pretty well established in places I visit regularly, like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, and other countries and regions; it's true that it's not seen as quite so relevant in Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, or Japan (but in all these last, it still has better standing than in the United States). Demonstrating geography's importance as part of the national capacity isn't difficult. When the Senate International Relations Committee's Carl Levin comes back from Afghanistan and says on national television that "you don't have ethnic divisions (there) that you do in Iraq" (Face the Nation, November 22, 2009) it's clear that he doesn't need a reservation to Kabul, he needs a seat in a cultural geography class. It wouldn't matter, except that the McNamaras, Bushes, Wolfowitzes, Levins and others of their intellectual makeup drive this country into foreign-policy blunders that have their origins in geographic illiteracy acquired at places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Although knowing locations (places, names) has about as much relevance to geography as a vocabulary table has to literature, you can't speak a language without learned vocabulary. When only one in seven Americans can identify Iraq on a blank map of the Middle East (and fewer still Afghanistan in Southwest Asia), that means the opinions of the other six (at least) are worthless, or at least not likely to have much if any basis in even the most rudimentary knowledge. A nation that does not know its way in this world functionally shrinking upon it will lose its way for sure. We did in Vietnam, were persuaded on Iraq, and now we think that we can handle Afghanistan's merciless geography with a few tens of thousands of troops.

But there's another side to this. Geographers haven't done much of a job even trying to persuade the "general population" of the importance of geography. We complain about geographic illiteracy, but where are the persuaders? I don't see many (any) colleagues in the debates roiling Washington on foreign policy (where you can hear the most incredible geographic blunders going unnoticed -- watch C-Span!). I see a gazillion history books on Afghanistan, Iraq, the British Empire, the rise of China, the fall of Russia ... where are the geographic interpreters?

Geographic Travels: I remember a presentation you gave in 2005 at National Geographic where you said in a few years Somalia will become a country of great interest. The rise, fall, and rise again of Islamic militants plus piracy have proven you right. Where do you see the next big geopolitical event to be?

Dr. de Blij: Somalia was an easy call. I was there only once, in much calmer times; but what I've called the "Islamic Front" was already in place and on the move. By the way, you may recall that in that same 2005 talk I also warned that the layout of the Horn of Africa and its opposite shore made Yemen a likely terrorist haven. Take a look at the globe and note how remarkably close Yemen is to Iran and other parts of Southwest and South Asia, even Pakistan. Now consider the cultural-geographic contrasts: Somalia is likely to be regional trouble, Yemen has the potential to be global trouble. The question "where next" is interesting. If bin Laden is looking at the world map, he must feel that he's got a pretty strong axis from weak Somalia (not Puntland or Somaliland) through Yemen to Afghanistan and Pakistan. What he doesn't have is the proximity to his Western targets he'd like. I've hypothesized for a long time that Africa offers that opportunity (Eritrea may be next, the North African Atlas Mountains perhaps the Waziristan of the more distant future). But it's also possible that al-Qaeda may take the potentially easier path, into Subsaharan Africa, where recruitment rather than destructive attacks may bear longer-range fruit.

Geographic Travels: You have published great books such as Why Geography Matters and The Power of Place. Do you have any upcoming books or projects?

Dr. de Blij: You're kind to refer to my two recent trade books that way, but compared to other, far more penetrating studies they're pretty pedestrian (this is reality, not false modesty). My mistake in WGM is to have concentrated too much on basic geography, in the hope that some readers might like to get up to speed on stuff we do in freshman classes at college level. I did have a nice response, by the way, from some Harvard University students who saw the book in their college bookstore, read it and wrote me to ask -- why aren't we getting this stuff as part of our College curriculum? And not only did they write me, they also wrote the Harvard Crimson. I actually heard from a Dean who was involved in a College curriculum revision then under way. He told me not to get my hopes up. "We're pretty dyed in the wool around here", he said. He was, of course, right. Harvard students still can go from kindergarten to graduate school without ever making contact with geography. And then lead the country into war after graduation. As to Power of Place, I just got mad at Thomas Friedman and his stuff about flat worlds and all that; he says himself in his book that he titled it that way to make people buy it. What Friedman, Krugman, Lieberman, and other men think is their great talent and indomitable perseverance is mostly -- luck. By the roulette of birth we're all parachuted onto this world in places fortunate and less so; and on average you're a hell of a lot better off as a man than as a woman. If you're born into the global core with its high-living-standard cities and high-income economies, and you start believing the world is flat (and geography is history), take a cold shower (it's the norm in the periphery, with a bucket) and take a good geography course to follow. We've made the global core a gated community, try to keep immigrants out through bureaucracy, fences, walls, moats, patrol boats -- and then call the world flat? Actually I am working on something new but not making much progress. It arose from an idea that popped up while I wrote Power of Place, on how we seem to be turning our backs on the fruits of the Enlightenment and what the cost of that might be. Extremism in religions, rejection of science, decline in the arts, coarsening of politics. But I find myself rewriting earlier chapters rather than moving along, so who knows. At least it keeps the adrenalin pumping.

End of Interview

Dr. de Blij makes some very good points. Generals Petraeus in Iraq and McFlynn in Afghanistan both realize the importace of regional and local geographic knowledge in the War on Terrorism. McFlynn goes as far to say that without local knowledge of the people and place that no amount of counter-insurrgency can win the Afghanistan War. Meanwhile I and others have stressed the need to teach geography better and for geographers to create products that will reach the general public.

Saldy, Dr. de Blij's story of Harvard University is repeated throughout America. Many universities do not have geography programs and those who do rarely emphasize the world regional interrelationships and instead focus on niche subfields. A deadly duet of university's not seeing the true importance and usefulness of geography and geographers constantly ruining their own case by an overemphasis of niches and tools has greatly harmed geographic literacy in the United States. I do not think we necessarily need more geography majors but instead need to properly teach world geography to students. One good world regional class can stick forever in an engineering or nursing student's mind allowing them to rethink world events. In a democratic society we cannot afford to have a large unknowledgable educated class.

Dr. de Blij is the author of Why Geography Matters, The Power of Place, Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture, Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts, and other books.


exuberance said...

There is a awesome book "Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare" written by the ecologist Paul A. Colinvaux. He plucked out all best insights and stories from his ecology text book and wrapped them up for the popular reading audience. Is there a similar book for geography?

Not clear that there are many natural borders between the social sciences. Sociologists, geographers, anthropologists... they all live on the great plane of social networks.

Catholicgauze said...

Both de Blij's "Why Geography Matters" and "Power of Place" would be similar to Colinvaux's work. I am familiar with Colinvaux and I realize to match his "text book to popular"-style is hard to break.

Some felt the first part of WGM was too simplistic. So if you feel you have a good base in geography then PoP will interest you more.

Benjamin Keene said...

Thanks for this short Q&A. Ideas like those Dr. de Blij expresses in it definitely need to be repeated until they stick.

exuberance said...