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Reflections on National Geography Awareness Week, 2008

Harm de Blij is the John A. Hannah Professor of Geography at Michigan State University. The author of more than 30 books he is an honorary life member of the National Geographic Society and was for seven years the Geography Editor on ABC’s Good Morning America. His most recent book, The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape, he reveals the rugged contours of our world that keep all but 3% of “mobals” stationary in the country where they were born. He argues that where we start our journey has much to do with our destiny, and thus with our chances of overcoming obstacles in our way.  In the post below, written for National Geography Awareness Week, Blij looks at America’s geographic illiteracy.

The election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States revealed once again that American society is capable of revolutionary self-correction. The state survived a Civil War that brought an end to human-rights violations of the most dreadful kind. The Civil Rights Movement, a century later, completed a long-dormant cycle of American transformation on the basis of a Constitution whose terms, as Presidents Kennedy and Johnson proclaimed, had not yet been met. And now, two generations on, the unimaginable has happened. My mail from all over the world over the past several days has one common theme, amazement – and a second thread, admiration. People who usually went to bed before the polls closed in their own countries’ elections stayed up all night to watch the drama unfold in America. November 4, 2008 was Global Awareness Day – global awareness of America and its continuing importance to the future of this planet.

But from the American side, the two-year-long preoccupation with electoral politics took its toll on U.S. awareness of the world, and revealed some geographic illiteracy among the candidates that gave cause for concern. Even those news media still committed to some global perspective shrank their international coverage in the face of the demand for, as CNN put it, “all politics all the time.” And it was not just a matter of diminished attention to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other headline topics. Right next door to us, Mexico is becoming the Colombia of Middle America, but the drama – and it will have huge repercussions in the years ahead – barely makes it into print. In our hemisphere, enormous changes are occurring in Brazil, with China strongly in the picture, but the geography of this emerging superpower hardly makes the headlines. Even Russia’s growing belligerence (how soon Moscow’s portentous actions toward Georgia faded from view) only made the news when its president failed to congratulate president-elect Obama on his victory and used his acknowledgment of the event to threaten missile emplacement in Kaliningrad. Let us hope that National Geography Awareness Week 2008 will mark a renewal of attention to global concerns.

On the matter of geographic literacy, it was disturbing to hear one presidential candidate refer to the Iraq-Afghanistan border and another suggest that you can see Russia from Alaska (to be sure, there are places where you can, but not as her assertion intended). Anyone running for the highest or the second-highest office of the United States ought to know what NAFTA means and realize that Africa is not a country. As to Kaliningrad, let’s not even go there.

So long as we have national leaders (as has recently been the case) who are not adequately versed in the environmental and cultural geographies of the places with whose peoples they will have to interact, and which they seek to change through American intervention, we need to enhance public education in geography. Whether the world likes it or not, the United States still is the indispensable state of the twenty-first century, 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 more effective vehicle than geography. It is a matter worth contemplating during National Geography Awareness Week.

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