Bring geography back to American universities

THE declining state of geography education in the United States is drawing national attention. The newspapers regularly carry new tales of American geographical illiteracy. Witness the 50 percent of high school seniors in one city who could not find the US on a map, or the 95 percent of freshmen at one college who could not identify Vietnam.

In response, Congress has declared Nov. 15-21 National Geography Awareness Week, and recently held a Senate Oversight Hearing on Geography Education, in which the secretary of education, William Bennett, and former Chief Justice Warren Burger were among the national leaders calling for major improvements in geography education.

So far, the discussion has focused on geography in our primary and secondary schools. But if we hope to resurrect geography in grade schools and high schools, we must first revive geography in America's universities and colleges.

Without strong programs there, teachers trained in geography have disappeared from American classrooms as quickly as wall maps, atlases, and geography textbooks.

Most liberal arts, social science, and earth science majors have never had a geography course. According to a 1982 study, almost 60 percent of the geography teachers in US secondary schools have taken no more than one or two, if any, college geography courses. In some states, a teacher who graduated with a concentration or degree in geography cannot even be certified to teach social studies.

What we see as today's classroom crisis actually represents the long-term effect of decisions made in the 1950s by major Ivy League institutions, beginning with Harvard, to dissolve their PhD programs in geography.

It is ironic that every major institution of higher learning and research in Europe - Cambridge, Oxford, the Sorbonne, Lund, Trier, the Soviet Academy of Sciences - has a large and strong department of geography. But try to find one at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Michigan, or Northwestern Universities. In Europe, geography is considered an essential part of everyone's education at all levels, including primary school.

And it is ironic that after abandoning geography, America's major institutions of higher learning find themselves reinventing the wheel by devising interdisciplinary teaching and research programs that mimic elements of geography, programs that are typically housed in the geography departments of Europe and Asia.

In large part, these programs try to capture the holistic, integrated perspective of geography. Geography is not just the ability to recite continents, countries, and capitals. It is the search to understand the ``why of where,'' to explore the complexity of languages, cultures, economies, histories, and ecologies that lies behind places on a map - places that make up the world we live in and pass on to our children.

The two great themes of geography are the relationship between nature and society, and the relationship between location and society. These themes capture the essence of today's great challenges, such as resource management and regional development in the third world; regional conflicts fed by longstanding economic, religious, or territorial differences; and individual and institutional responses to both environmental and technological hazards.

Geography must be brought back into the mainstream of higher education if we want to understand the global economy in which we must participate; to reconcile local, regional, national, and international interests; and to understand many of the issues behind newspaper headlines.

Strengthening geography at our colleges and universities can increase the number of teachers and practitioners throughout our schools, and reduce the need for devising complex, confusing, and often costly interdisciplinary courses.

Most important, as the global community increasingly calls upon the use of geographical expertise and perspectives to help resolve many of the fundamental questions facing our world, from reliable food supplies to safe use of new technologies, the US may be able once again to take a leading role.

B.L. Turner II chairs the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University and recently coordinated ``The Earth as Transformed by Human Action,'' a major international conference on the global environment.

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