Friday, June 8, 2007

Bring Back Geography!

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, I am a GIS Analyst. We’ll go into exactly what GIS is at a later date. But when skimming through an industry periodical today, I ran across the following article, entitled “Bring Back Geography”, written by Jerome E. Dobson in the Spring 2007 issue of ArcNews. Hmmm, I hadn’t actually ever thought about it before but apparently I majored in a subject that has been ‘purged’ from most American universities, especially in the Ivy League. The article makes some very good points about how geography as a discipline has been largely ignored, purged or reinvented under other names such as ‘Earth Science’ or ‘Place Studies’. Geography is really much more, as explained by Mr. Dobson,

Geography is more than you think. Geography is to space what history is to time. It is a spatial way of thinking, a science with distinctive methods and tools, a body of knowledge about places, and a set of information technologies that have been around for centuries. Geography is about understanding people and places and how real-world places function in a viscerally organic sense. It's about understanding spatial distributions and interpreting what they mean. It's about using technology to study, in the words of the late professor J. Rowland Illick, "why people do what they do where they do it." Geography is a dimensional science and humanity based on spatial logic in which locations, flows, and spatial associations are considered to be primary evidence of earth processes, both physical and cultural. Its hallmarks are spatial analysis, place-based research (e.g., regional studies, area studies, urban studies), and scientific integration.

The familiar litany also implies that geography is just for kids, something you learn in elementary school or high school if you're lucky, and use for the rest of your life without any need for new learning. Does geography really matter for grownups? Of course it does. Geographic knowledge, understanding, and skills matter, for instance, in formulating foreign policy, designing and using GIS, and just about everything else in society that involves locations, movements, and flows.

Wow. This really makes me think about a couple of things. First is that when I went through a period a few years ago of thinking to go back to school and study elementary education, I contacted the local public university here to see what I would need to do since I already have a Bachelor’s Degree. Well, apparently if your existing degree is in what’s considered to be a ‘teachable major’ then all you have to do is complete the certification process and ouila! Very simple. However, if your major is not considered ‘teachable’ then you basically have to start from scratch. Guess what’s not considered a teachable major? Yep, Geography. Hmmm, somehow that escaped me back when I was majoring in it and one of the options for specialization was ‘Teaching of Geography’. Now granted that it was an option to teach geography at the secondary (high school) level, but still.

The other thought I had when I read this article is actually related to something I was watching on tv last night. I haven’t seen much of the popular show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader”, but due to the lack of much other than re-runs on television right now, I had this show on last night. One of the questions given to the contestant (the grade level this question was aimed at escapes me right now) was something like “Which great lake does the state of Indiana border?”. Now given that I live in the “Great Lakes” state of Michigan (which also borders Indiana), to me this was a gimmee. But even so I was totally amazed when both the contestant as well as his 10-year-old ‘classmate’ got this question wrong, choosing Lake Erie instead of Lake Michigan. I can (somewhat) understand not being able to place the exact locations of some of the interior states (especially the ones all shaped like rectangles, which I have to admit I have trouble with as well sometimes) but the Great Lakes comprise some of the country’s most distinctive and (I would think) easy-to-recognize geographical area. Hmmm. “Bring Back Geography!”? I guess so.

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