by Harm de Blij
As a professional geographer living in Washington, DC in the 1990s, teaching at a major university, serving as geography editor on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ and working for the National Geographic Society, I dreaded the intermittent appearance of media reports on international surveys that ranked American high-school students near the bottom of the geographic-literacy league. Dinner-party conversation would be spiked with sarcastic commentary (“they couldn’t name the Pacific?”) and enlivened by amusing stories of adults, some of them politicians and diplomats, embarrassing themselves and their nation in international settings. A repeat favorite was about President Reagan, who had opened a conference in Brasilia by pronouncing himself pleased to be in Bolivia.
Worse, those reports and anecdotes tended to confirm the public’s image of geographic
knowledge as equivalent to skill in naming places. It is a useful skill, to be sure, but it has
about as much relevance to geographic knowledge as a vocabulary table has to literature.
Geographers were troubled by the decline in geographic literacy in America because we
knew it would have foreign-policy implications. When Robert McNamara published his
mea culpa on Vietnam, many of us wondered what the nation might have been spared if
the author of America’s Indochina policy had taken just one course in human or cultural
geography at Harvard University. But Harvard closed its Department of Geography after
World War II, and so did Yale, President Bush’s alma mater. When we read of the
President comparing democracy-building efforts in the Middle East to previous
achievements in Japan and Germany, the echoes of those closures are not difficult to
What is lost when geographic education (at all levels) withers? Take a comprehensive
undergraduate curriculum in the “social” sciences, and you will see three recurring
perspectives: the temporal (historical), spatial (geographic) and structural (political,
economic). Each informs the others, but the spatial perspective is indispensable because it
alerts us to the significance of place and location in any analysis of issues ranging from
the environmental to the political. That’s why geographers tend to reach for their map
when they first hear of a major development such as the intervention in Iraq, and put their
GIS – geographic information systems – to work. But as those dreaded surveys show,
even well-educated Americans, on average, are not able to use maps to maximum effect.
A second, and crucial, loss involves environmental awareness and responsibility.
Geography, alone among the “social” sciences, has a strong physical, that is natural,
dimension. Before geography’s decline in America’s high schools, young students first
heard of weather systems and climate change in their geography classes, and learned how
resource distribution relates to conservation and responsible use. My marvelous
geography teacher, Eric de Wilde, in 1948 raised a question in class that kept me thinking
forever after: given the seesaw of ice-age temperature changes, how has history been
influenced by climate? From him I learned that we live in an ice age, and that we are
lucky to experience a brief warm spell between glaciations. Ask the average citizen today
what the difference is between an ice age and a glaciation, and you are not likely to get a
satisfactory answer. Small wonder that politicians can capitalize on public confusion.
So long as we have national leaders who do not adequately know the environmental and
cultural geographies of the places they seek to change through American intervention and
whose decisions in environmental arenas are insufficiently informed by geographic
perspectives, we need to enhance public education in geography. Whether the world likes
it or not, the United States has emerged from the twentieth century as the world’s most
powerful state, capable of influencing nations and peoples, lives and livelihoods from
pole to pole. That power confers on Americans a responsibility to learn as much as they
can about those nations and livelihoods, and for this there is no better vehicle than
geography. The United States and the world will face numerous challenges in the years
ahead, among which three will stand out: rapid environmental change, a rising tide of
terrorism empowered by weapons of mass destruction, and the emergence of China as a
superpower on the global stage. To confront these challenges, the American public needs
to be the world’s best informed about the factors and forces underlying them and the
linkages among them. Geography is the key to understanding these interconnections.
- H. J. de Blij is the author of Why Geography Matters.
He is also Distinguished Professor of Geography at Michigan State University, former editor
at the National Geographic Society, and former Landegger Chair, Georgetown University School of
Foreign Service. Visit his website,www.deblij.net.