Why is Geography Important

Many Americans do not even know what "geography" is. If asked they will say it is the study of maps. Why does the average American consider cartography and geography to be synonymous? If most do not even know what geography is, how can you expect people to define it or have any proficiency in it? Most US schools no longer teach geography as a separate subject and combine it under an umbrella course, colloquially termed as "social studies." Since this encompasses history, civics, a degree of economics and some geography, it is safe to assume that only the students truly interested in the geography of a topic are going to benefit from being exposed to it. Unfortunately, many students are not interested.


Geography concerns itself with relationships over space and time between physical and sociocultural processes. It's how people relate to their environment.


When geography is directly addressed by most of the public, they often see empty maps with political boundaries, and they are concerned with identifying places with no concern in how those places are related to others, let alone what those places contributed to the history of civilization, and the world as a whole. The "where" is often paramount. Many people give little thought on how the earth's physical features and layout effect not only weather, but how civilization developed the way it did. Geography, even today, affects the lines of commerce, national ambitions, and migration.


With the scope of what needs to be taught today there is often a lack of emphasis on geography as a specific subject. Teachers are now instructed to focus on higher order thinking skills over rote memorization. Most teachers are not going to give pop quizzes asking kids to label countries on a map. As an example, if students are being taught about WWII, besides the focus on discussing motivations and implications of the war, often dates and locations are given short thrift due to time limitations. They want students to think critically and not just recall facts. Dates, and rote memorization are still necessary to totally grasp the lesson being taught. The adage about pictures and words is still true and looking towards the horizon while still focused on what is front and center is a way of providing context to the story. To invoke another adage, the forest is often not grasped, because the trees are way too front and center.


The educational system simply cannot provide every iota of information that one might need to acquire in life. You need to kindle curiosity. Geography opens up the scale and scope of what can be realized by taking a wholistic view of events and how they interrelate. Often it leads to a systemic understanding of world events and trends, instead of trying to process disjointed nuggets of information.


Ignorance is dangerous as most know. When 11% of American students can't find their own country on a map, or an even larger percentage do not know what states border their own, we have a problem. When these students grow up with little interest in understanding places that are actually affecting their lives, it is another indication that curiosity is in real danger. Even if a spark of curiosity is ignited later on they cannot simply go and look for information if they do not even have the basics. Many know that Cancun is tropical, near an ocean, and a lot of Spanish is spoken there. But they cannot add much more to a conversation about the locale than that.


How does one begin to watch international news if one doesn't know about recent history or what the basic layout of the continents are? It's not that Americans are stupid; it is that they have been systematically denied some basic education needed to function and understand the modern interconnected world.


All teachers have been confronted with "When will we use this in our lives?", or "Why do we need to learn this?" The general American public has started to lose the desire to discover what they do not know, and only want to learn the bare minimum. It has more than likely affected the knowledge of geography in the US. In the U.S. we can rationalize this by pointing out that we are not surrounded by a lot of countries, so we do not need to pick up on how this country fits into a complicated "neighborhood." This leads to never having sat down and walked through the key countries of the world. We learned the ones we needed to discuss the history topics at hand. Today the media does not help as there is a systematic exclusion of international geography and history from public schools in the US and roughly ninety percent of media coverage in the US is domestic.


In closing, there is a lot going on in the world today. Some due to where a country or enclave of people are located. Many borders are artificial and divide homogeneous groups. This is especially true in Africa and the middle east. Today Russia is worried about NATO on their doorstep and keeping access to warm water ports. China is creating artificial land masses to expand their influence farther into the Pacific. Coastlines are predicted to change as sea levels rise. There is already one country in the world that might disappear because of this. They are starting to discuss where they might go.


Geography effects everything. To understand what motivates a good portion of what we see in the news requires some sense of place. The WHERE, to who, what, when, and why.