People have always been fascinated with investigating their home–the Earth. For centuries, the study of geography and the maps geographers have created have stirred imaginations and inspired explorations of the unknown. Today, geography is more relevant than ever, as issues of climate change, cultural diversity, economic globalization, urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture, water quality and quantity, crime, energy, tourism, politics, and natural hazards grow in importance on a global scale and affect our everyday lives. To grapple with these issues requires a populace that has a firm foundation in geography, a populace that can see the “big picture” and yet that understands how different patterns and trends are related from a global scale down to the local community.
This requires an educational program that begins early, through rich field experiences in school and out of school, through inquiry-driven, technology-infused, project-based geographic experiences in sciences, social studies, history, and even mathematics in the K-12 classroom, continuing into community colleges and the undergraduate university level. Second, it requires recognition that geography is not memorizing place names, landforms, and imports, but that it is a triangulation of a body of content, a way of looking at the world, and a set of skills.
The geographic body of content includes themes and regions; it embraces the past and present. It anticipates and plans for the future. It respects and celebrates diversity, culture, and landscape. It seeks to improve the health of the planet and its people. The geographic way of looking at the world embraces concepts of change, scale, patterns, sustainability, and spatial relationships. The set of skills includes cartography, computer science, multimedia, spatial and nonspatial statistics, and spatial analysis with Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing. The skills incorporate inquiry: asking geographic questions, gathering geographic data, visualizing and critically assessing that data, analyzing that data, making a decision, and acting on geographic knowledge. This process sparks additional questions and investigations. The geographer is innately curious about a good many things. The geographer is excited about seeing the connections between the cultural and physical worlds on a personal, community, regional, national, and global scale.
The geographic perspective informs other disciplines. When epidemiologists study the spread of disease, scientists study climate change, or businesspersons determine where to locate a new retail establishment, they use spatial thinking and analysis. In each case, geography provides critical tools for studying these issues and for solving real problems on a daily basis.
ecoregions, earthquakes, and other objects located where they are, and
how are they affected by their proximity to nearby things and by
invisible global interconnections and networks? Geographic
investigations are often value-laden and involve critical thinking
skills. For example, after examining a map of cotton production in the
USA, geographers investigate the relationship between altitude,
latitude, climate, and cotton production. After discovering that much
cotton is grown in dry regions that must be irrigated, they can ask
“Should cotton be grown in these areas? Is this the best use of water
and other natural resources?” Hence, geographers understand that the
Earth is changing; they think scientifically and analytically about why
it is changing, and they dig deeper: Should the Earth be changing in
these ways? Is there anything that I should be doing or could be doing
Why should we care about geographic education?
Despite the long history and contributions that geographers have made
over the centuries, geography has been so neglected over the past
century in much of American primary and secondary education that most
people do not understand what geography is. What is the relationship
between birth rate and life expectancy? How does acid mine drainage in a
mountain range affect water quality downstream? How will climate
change affect global food production? Just think of the major issues of
a geographic nature that the planet has already experienced in
2011–political unrest, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and more. What
could be more relevant than studying these issues? Yet, if geographic
education is neglected, education and society suffers. I invite you to
become a member of the National Council for Geographic Education Watch my “Why Geography Education Matters” video:
Geography is not simply a “nice to have” subject for an already
crowded primary, secondary, and university curriculum. It fosters the
critical thinking skills, technology skills, citizenship skills, and
life skills that underpin all other disciplines. It is essential for
grappling with the essential issues of the 21st Century. If we continue
to ignore geography education, we do so at our own peril.