It is undeniable that the National Geographic Society has had a massive impact on geography. It is the public face of the discipline around the world. Many of professional geographers, amateur geographers, academic geographers, students, and the general public have been impacted by the society. It's outreach, most especially the magazine, has helped define what is geography.
I decided to ask other geography bloggers for a story about them and National Geographic. Here are the responses. The stories, including my own, show the good and the bad about the society.
Catholicgauze (myself) of Geographic Travels
I remember as a kid looking at a National Geographic magazine while sitting in my mother's bathroom. The article was about a former National Geographic photographer. I was so excited about the old photos that for some reason, the logic is not quite clear, I ran downstairs to my brother who was in the kitchen. "I'm going to work for National Geographic!" I triumphantly declared.
A few years later I did work for National Geographic. While my time was short I managed to write online news stories, help edit videos, and managed to meet a vast range of people. The fact that the non-profit side of the society greatly suffers while the profit side of the company has so many more resources at hand was shocking. When I was in the non-profit sector, I horded things like notepads and pens because there was none available for workers. Meanwhile, when I worked in the profit division, things like wine, food, fancy headphones flowed freely.
My manager on the non-profit side would not tolerate animosity towards the for-profit side. "Say what you will about the profit side. They have not sold out like the Discovery channel which only shows reality shows. The National Geographic Channel (which is only 50% owner of the channel) still shares the educational mission of the society." Today the channel has more than sold out to the reality show formula.
My time may have been short but it was an experience I will forever remember and cherishes.
Matt Rosenberg of Geography@About.com
Through my Geography at About.com website, I had become quite familiar with the National Geographic Society's geography bee as I had contact with many young people who were preparing for local, state, and national-level bees. I was the MC for a bee at a local elementary school and served as a judge at the state-level competition in Sacramento. A year or so after I served as a judge, a publisher approached me to write a book about preparing for the geography bee. I wrote the book, based on my knowledge and experience at various bees and with winners. After the book was published, I was informed by the state coordinator of the bee that I was no longer welcome to serve as a judge for the state-level bee. Since that time, I still have somewhat of a distaste for the society and its heavy-handedness toward me.
Tom Howder of Twelve Mile Circle
National Geographic has been a mainstay of my household for as long as I can remember. Posters I put on my wall as I grew up weren't of supermodels or rock bands, they were the colorful, detailed fold-out maps tucked inside a lifetime of editions that arrived in our mailbox. I subscribe to very few print magazines today in the digital age and National Geographic is one of them. It's best appreciated on paper and usually I have to compete with my son to be the first one to read it. The fascination has been passed along to a new generation.
Daniel Raven-Ellison of Guerrilla Geography, Geography Collective, Mission: Explore, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer 2012
On his first memory of National Geographic
I'm really not sure which of my early memories are real. It's not a glamorous answer, but probably in the waiting room of a dentist or doctor's surgery before having an alien body removed from me. I developed a more intimate relationship with National Geographic when I got to Secondary School and started collecting the magazine to plan imaginary trips and create works of art for my walls. Something I loved doing and continue to do when working with young people in classrooms.
On whether or not National Geographic help inspire Mission Explorer and/or Guerrilla Geography
Without a doubt. National Geographic is a successful pioneer of popularising geography and its impossible not to be inspired by that. They being home important issues in smart ways too. Last year they published an awesome article on Koala deaths that helped galvanise support for them to receive more protection, a real achievement. Nat Geo is far more engaging for the public compared to many other explicitly 'geography' organisations and their reach helps them make real change happen. I want my work to have a similar kind of effect but with a twist of guerrillaness. Guerrilla Geography is all about radical, alternative, unexpected, unusual, innovative and creative geographies. There is much about National Geographic that is traditional and even conservative, this gives confidence to much of the public and funders so that the Society can do some fairly radical work to try and improve the world. Just take what they're currently doing in the Pircairn islands with my fellow Nat Geo Explorer Enric Sala. Ambitiously they're working with islanders to make the largest marine reserve in the world. This is big thinking that can bring about real change and is definitely on the 'guerrilla scale' in my book. They also support our work in The Geography Collective which is direct guerrilla geography education work that encourages children to explore and think about the world in new ways - both things that Nat Geo do too, but we're a little more warped (-;
On whether or not he sees National Geographic helping geographic literacy
I live in the UK and like much of the world we are lucky enough to have geography taught as a subject in our schools. It's not without its problems, but in many schools its taught in highly creative and innovative ways, using fieldwork, place-based learning, philosophy, GIS, citizen science and much more. Our fight is for a decent and flexible curriculum, better policy, reasonable funding..... In the US the situation is very different. Geography is largely damaged, misunderstood and undervalued. It's a core subject but the ONLY ONE WITH NO FEDERAL FUNDING, which is a DISGRACE. It's almost like there is a conspiracy against children having a decent understanding of their world. In the medium term the fight in the US is for the value of geography to be recognised, the subject to be integrated within the current system and for standards to be raised. Danny Edelson at Nat Geo Education is doing a great job of making the case for geo-literacy as an approach for threading geography across the curriculum while also finding creative ways to support green-shoots for formal and informal geography education. We should get behind Danny and his team in their efforts.
Evan Centanni of Political Geography Now
Growing up in the U.S. with a thirst for exploration and a passion for geography, my childhood intellectual pursuits were heavily influenced by National Geographic. The magazine, illustrated every month with striking photos and a map accompanying almost every article, was my window to the world. Now, as a university-educated and moderately-well-traveled adult, I can see that the writers and editors rely a bit too heavily on the romanticization of "exotic" peoples and places (even if that's not the term they would use). Nevertheless, the sheer power of National Geographic's passion for exploration and scientific understanding, delivered through its top-notch maps and always-fresh photography, has continued to secure the magazine a welcome place on my coffee table.
The National Geographic Atlas of the World has also played a huge role in the growth of my geographic knowledge since I was young, and I still see it as the gold standard for popular cartography. In some senses, I've grown beyond that book - I now realize that many of the world's most interesting examples of political geography are hidden from its pages, either by their transitory nature or by the organization's reluctance to truly follow through with its claim of illustrating all political features "as they exist on the ground" (for example, Taiwan is colored the same as China, and breakaway states are not always indicated on maps). As writer and cartographer for Political Geography Now, today I'm often working with precisely those cases not done justice by the Atlas. However, I still look to National Geographic's cartographic style as something of a holy grail, the highest bar I could set for the quality of my own work. If one day I can succeed at filling the gaps in the world map while also matching the professionalism and flare of National Geographic's cartographic team, I'll be one happy geographer!
Update: Z Geographer of Z Geography
Thanks for asking for my thoughts on National Geographic! I have two found memories of National Geographic. The first, and the most persistent memory throughout my childhood, is undoubtedly the National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our World. This is the exact book because I remember the cover fondly. This book is probably one of a few reasons that I'm a Human Geographer. It offered the reader the usual: maps, currency and economic data, brief descriptions, and some pictures. I remember being absolutely captivated by the book, almost reading it every night. The pictures, they always had at least one per country or territory, always gave you an amazing glimpse into the place, the vistas or the people. The longest description and most pictures were of the United States, but I almost never read it. I spent most of my book-travels in Kyrgyzstan/Central Asia (there was an AMAZING picture of mountains) and Mongolia (since I've been obsessed with that country since time immemorial). This atlas ignited a lasting curiosity with the world and its people.
For the actual magazine, I remember the maps the most. When I was a wee boy an uncle fought with the U.S. Army in Desert Storm, though he was almost on the other side of the planet - I remember poring over one issue of National Geographic's maps. The map showed the primary towns and cities of Iraq, axis of advance of the Coalition's forces, and a pictograph of the relative amounts of manpower and material available to the Iraqis and the Coalition. Around the edge were pictures, including a few of burning oil derricks that the Iraqis set to stem the advance. During that time of uncertainty, I can't recall a single news story - and we had to have watched the news for hours and days at a time - but I do recall sprawled out on my living room floor, with the map in front of me, just poring over it.
My uncle made it home safe and between these National Geographic productions, I gained geographic literacy - at least for the human side of things! I couldn't really comment on the effectiveness of National Geographic for physical geography - I've never really considered myself one, not even good at it. But for an appreciation of the differences and similarities in human groups, you can't beat a good National Geographic atlas or magazine. And then there's the maps, I'm always surprised when I hear stories (almost like legends) of students and people who can't read maps, perhaps this is somewhat elitist to say in a world that tolerates illiteracy. But I think National Geographic fills an important niche in geographic awareness between primary/secondary school and university. Most importantly, it brings Geography in a most accessible way to millions of readers.