Faculty member in Geography and Native American Studies, The Evergreen State College

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Olympia, WA 98505 USA


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By Charles F. Gritzner 

Journal of Geography 102: 90-91.

      Contemporary Americans have access to an unprecedented quantity of information, and to sophisticated means of acquiring, disseminating, and analyzing this information. Yet, given these potential means of enhancing our geographic awareness and global understanding, most Americans--living in the Age of the Atom (or Satellite, or Computer, or. . .)--continue to possess little more than a "Stone Age" awareness of the world in which we live and upon which we depend for our very survival. 

      To individuals lacking a well-developed "mental map" of Earth's surface and its varied mosaic of physical and human conditions--the very heart and soul of geographic knowledge--the globe must appear as a fragmented and confusing hodgepodge of meaningless and unrelated phenomena.  Theirs is a world inhabited by faceless peoples and cultures who lack a proud heritage, bonding institutions and customs, and spatial dimensions.  Places, to the geographic illiterate, lack characteristic features, essential contexts of location, and spatial relevance.  Their world is composed of vague physical features and life sustaining environmental systems for which they lack appropriate terminology, valid mental images, or understanding of causative agents or processes. The geographic illiterate also lacks sufficient knowledge of human use potentials to render wise decisions relating to human use and conservation of our finite global natural endowment.  

      To persons with no understanding of geography, temporal events occurred in a spatial vacuum, with "history" and "geography" being unrelated in space and time.  Such individuals,  though constantly confronted by critical problems and issues, sadly lack reasoned criteria on which to base rational analyses, judgments, or attempts at resolution.  To the geographically unaware, human differences often appear to be threatening and can constitute the basis for feelings of prejudice and acts of discrimination.  Such individuals are prisoners of their own ignorance and provincialism.  How poorly equipped they are to assume meaningful citizenship in the increasingly interdependent global community! 

      It stands as a rather sad and somewhat inexplicable indictment of this country's public priority and educational system that among the world's educated industrial societies, Americans rank among the least literate in geographic knowledge and, perhaps worse, curiosity.  Examples of geographic "illiteracy" are numerous, as are the increasingly apparent and damaging consequences--be they social, economic, political, military, or environmental--of our failure to provide citizens with adequate geographic training. 

      In most countries of the Western urban-industrial world (and in many Less Developed  Countries (LDCs) as well), geography constitutes the "core" of the social science curriculum.  The United States is unique among these nations in relegating geography to a relatively minor role in both the elementary and secondary curriculum.  Although considerable progress has been made in terms of enhancing geography's position in the curriculum during recent years, it remains a sad and somewhat shocking indictment of our educational priorities that most of the world's educated people are much better informed about the world (and often about the United States!) than are the majority of our own citizens! 

      In an increasingly complex, troubled, and closely intertwined world community of cultures and nations, Americans simply do not know much about our global neighbors (or, for that matter, about even ourselves in a geographic sense).  We have little understanding of, or feeling for, their lands and peoples, their resources, capabilities, or attainments;  we are ignorant of their cultural similarities and differences, of their hopes and dreams, and of their problems and needs.  Perhaps of greatest importance, we fail to understand how important they have become to us and we to them.  How can Americans expect to maintain a position of leadership, strength, and respect within a world of nations about which we know--and seemingly care--so little?   

      Now, more than ever, citizens can ill-afford to remain ignorant of the world about us.  The compression of time and space resulting from the technological "explosion" has placed even our most remote neighbors at our very doorstep.  It is essential that all Americans understand and appreciate their role and responsibility in an increasingly complex global community. Each of us must be aware of Earth?s fundamental physical and cultural patterns;  its key locations and divisions;   and its primary networks and systems.   We also must understand our planet?s basic areas of production and consumption, its major spatial interrelationships, and conflicts.       

      Geography is the ancient and time-honored field of study that can best provide the essential training needed to ensure that our citizens are prepared to assume responsible and enlightened leadership in the complex and demanding global community of the 21st century. 

      T. S. Eliot wrote, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time."  We must think globally and act locally.  By better knowing the world about us, we come to better know ourselves .



      Defining geography is no easy task.  Indeed, few fields of study seem to be more "fuzzy" in the minds of laymen and educators.  Many people confuse geography with geology;  after all, both sciences share a common interest in geo (Earth) and the distinction between graphy (Greek:  to write about, or describe) and logy (Greek:  to discourse, or speak about) seems rather insignificant!   Others believe that geographers are people who travel to exotic places, take beautiful photographs, and publish accounts of their adventures in the National Geographic Magazine.  Still others associate geography with the laborious and sterile memorization of states, capitals, the length of rivers and height of mountains, and leading products of the world's places. 

Perhaps the most commonly held perception of geographers is our fascination with maps and what they can tell us about places.  To the trained geographer, most of the foregoing seems somewhat strange!  After all, as a recognized body of knowledge and as a unique methodology used in studying the varied physical and human features of Earth's surface, geography is hardly the "new kid on the block."  In fact, geography is the most ancient of the existing sciences!  Its origin is traced to ancient Greek Cosmography (The comprehensive study of Earth and the Cosmos), and the term geography (first used by the Greek scholar Eratosthenes in ca. 200 BC) has been around for more than 2,200 years! 

     Actually, there are many definitions of geography. Although geographers may not always agree on a single definition of their field of study, a considerable amount of agreement exists within our community concerning the fundamental nature of this unique discipline.  Most simply stated, geographers study what is where, why there, and why care? in regard to the varied features--both physical and human--of Earth's surface.  Application of the geographic (spatial) method, helps one better understand the complex and seemingly bewildering distribution of Earth's features, conditions, interrelationships, distributions, and patterns.    

      A key to understanding the nature of geography rests in the realization that the science is based not on what geographers study, but on how we organize and analyze information pertaining to any of Earth's physical or cultural features.  Geography is a correlative, integrative, holistic science.  In an age of increasing scientific compartmentalization, geography provides a "bridge" of understanding that links otherwise fragmented information from the natural and social sciences, the arts and humanities, and history.  It presents information in a spatial (location) organizational framework.  The geographic approach is a methodology, a distinctly unique way of organizing and analyzing information--information pertaining literally to anything that an be identified, located, mapped, and analyzed in terms of its spatial location and distribution [History, too, is a methodology that can easily be contrasted:  geographers ask "where and why", whereas historians ask "when and why"]. 

      One of the most fundamental assumptions of geographic study is that once a particular feature, or set of features, is spatially depicted (mapped), the resulting pattern(s) can be explained by identifying and analyzing various processes and interrelationships which, functioning through time and space, have contributed to their occurrence.  Obvious examples include the relationship that exists between a particular type of climate and its associated vegetation, animal life, water features, soil, erosional and depositional landforms, and land use potential;   and in human geography  the relationship between a culture and its associated economic activity, technology, belief and communication systems, social customs, diet, perceptions, and landscape imprint.   

      Geographers study Earth's features in a variety of ways when organizing, analyzing, and presenting information--be it on a local, regional, or global scale.   The most commonly employed traditions are:  spatial analysis, in which selected features are studied in the context of their location, spatial arrangement or pattern, and their relationship to other features;  earth-human interrelationships (cultural ecology), which focus upon cultural perceptions of and adaptation to environmental conditions, including resource potentials and use, and environmental change;  cultural landscape approach, in which human activities are studied in space and time for the purpose of better understanding the human imprint on Earth's surface;  and the regional concept, which is used in identifying, describing, and explaining patterns of relative homogeneity on Earth's surface.  Considerable overlap exists between and among the four traditions. 

In teaching, geographic information can be integrated using five concepts or themes:  location (position on Earth's surface), place (physical and human features and conditions), interaction (the ways in which humans culturally adapt to, use, and change Earth's natural environments), movement (uneven flow of natural elements, people, materials, and ideas), and region (areas in which one or more conditions are similar). 

      Regardless of the particular traditions or themes employed in geographic study, an historical  (temporal) dimension is essential.  Only by understanding past events, processes, interrelationships, and patterns can one fully understand those agents that have contributed to the evolution of contemporary features, conditions, and distributions. 

      Might the foregoing information explain the prominence of geography in the curriculum of nearly all countries within the developed world, and in many others as well?  Might it also explain, at least in part, why geography has languished in the American curriculum?  Where, after all, can a "place" be found for a science claiming to be both physical and cultural, as well as both spatial and temporal, in a rigid curriculum employing a stultifying and unrealistic "pigeon hole" approach to the organization and compartmentalization of knowledge?  Few educators fail to recognize the importance of history's temporal (when?) perspective;  why is it that so few people seem able to grasp the comparable importance of geography's spatial perspective (where?) perspective?  All things occurring in time, after all, also occur(red) someplace.   

Finally, geography is a dynamic science.  It has been called "Learning for living."

Few sciences can offer a more immediate or direct benefit in terms of daily living as a member of an increasingly diverse, complex, often conflicting, and certainly often confusing world.   In addition to its intrinsic values, today geography offers a world of vocational opportunities in a broad variety of fields including government, business,  private enterprise, and teaching. 



      The word "geography" conveys a rather fuzzy image to many Americans.  When thinking "geography," many things may come to the non-geographer's mind.  To many people, geography connotes the laborious memorization of states, capitals, leading products, and other trivial data.   When taught as geotrivia, the subject becomes a load on the memory, rather than a meaningful light in a student's mind.  Others, particularly many teachers of history and social studies, restrict the meaning of geography to aspects of Earth's physical elements--its landforms, weather and climate, plant and animal life, water features, and so on.  In still other instances, "teaching geography" simply means occasionally using wall maps to point out the location of places.  

      Geographic educators are sensitive to the fact that the science suffers from limited public understanding.  When the nature of geography is not known and the vital contributions of geographic awareness remain vague to educators, geography is diminished as a classroom subject.  Paradoxically, while geography thrives in the nation's colleges and universities, the subject has languished in the American school curriculum during most of the 20th century.  Much of the problem can be attributed to geographers' inability--at least until recently--to present a clear, concise, and relevant agenda for their discipline as a classroom subject. 

      Geography is somewhat unique among the sciences.  Similar to history, geography is a field of study based on a distinct way of organizing and analyzing information, rather than on the study of a particular phenomenon, or a discrete body of information.  Historians use the temporal methodology in asking "when";  Geographers employ a spatial methodology, asking "where?"  in reference to places and conditions on Earth's surface.  

      Describing and explaining patterns of spatial organization--the distribution of Earth's physical and cultural features--is fundamental to geographic inquiry.  Fundamentally, geographers seek to know and to explain what is where, why there, and why care in regard to the varied features of Earth's surface.  This is a difficult and challenging task.  Geographic study entails a vast body of factual information (far more than any individual can master) and involves the application of numerous concepts. 

      Most geography educators recognize the futility of an attempt to teach the world (or any area thereof) in factual detail.  Geography instruction, to be most effective, must focus on the development of geographic concepts and fundamental skills such as map reading.  Founded on this conviction, a Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the National Council for Geographic Education and the Association of American Geographers was formed in the early l980s.  It was this committee that developed guidelines for teaching geography as a dynamic, conceptually based science, Guidelines for Geographic Education:  Elementary and Secondary School (l984).  The landmark publication presented five fundamental themes (concepts) that are foundational to the teaching and learning of geography:  location, place, interaction, movement, and region. 

      The five themes help answer questions that are essential to understanding the complex mosaic of spatial patterns formed by the distribution of Earth's varied natural and human features. 

       Location answers the question "Where is it?" with reference to the specific or relative position of places on Earth's surface.  Where are you at this moment?  In how many ways can your location be described?  As teachers, we are constantly describing the location of places.  In so doing, we are using the most basic of all geographic concepts. 

      Place helps answers the question "What is there?  What is it like?"  Features and conditions of place--both physical and human--give meaning and character that set each place on Earth's surface apart from all others.  What are the major natural features where you live?  How would you describe the population and settlement patterns in your area?  How are the land and other resources used?  What aspects of culture--language, religion, social patterns, political system, and economic activity--are important there?

      Understanding interaction between cultures and the natural environments they occupy often helps to explain the nature of places, "Why is it like this?"  All places have certain advantages and disadvantages for human land use and settlement.  Each culture establishes its own unique relationship to the physical Earth.  Each human group, based on its needs, tools and skills, and perceptions, culturally adapts to, uses, and modifies the natural environment in some way.  In so doing, it creates its own distinct imprint on the land, the cultural landscape.  In what chief ways have we culturally adapted to our natural environment?  What are our important resources?  Do we use the environment in the same way as did earlier residents of the area?  How have we changed the natural environment?

      Movement explains "How are places connected or linked?"  What comes and what goes, from and to where, and why?  The concept establishes the importance of flow and linkages as people, ideas, resources, commodities, and other elements move from place to place over the earth.  How is movement important to your community?  What patterns of movement are evident within your area of residence?

      Finally, the concept of region addresses the question, "How can places be grouped?"  Regions are the basic unit of geographic study.  In terms of organizing and analyzing data, they are to the geographer what the period or era is to the historian--a means of simplifying the classification of information and placing it in manageable units.  In what major regions is your area included? 

      Whether teaching geography, history, global studies, or social studies, the five geographic themes provide a sound conceptual framework for the study of Earth's diverse physical and human conditions.