"Geography Matters! The Importance of Geographic Literacy in Liberal Arts Education"
(The ninth annual College of Arts and Sciences John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, Sept. 8, 2011)
Thank you very much. Thank you Dr. Hallwas for the introduction. Before I begin I would like to thank the Liberal Arts Lecture for selecting me to give tonight’s presentation. I would like to thank members of the College of Arts and Sciences: Dean Sue Martinelli-Fernandez, Associate Deans Russ Morgan and Jim Schmidt, Sharon Knight and Bob Johnson for their hard work and support in preparing tonight’s event. I also wish to acknowledge my colleagues in the Department of Geography, past and present, Dr. Sam Thompson, chair, as well as Dr. Chris Merrett of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Chad Sperry, director of the WIU GIS Center, and Linda Zellmer of University Libraries. I thank my family and friends for supporting me and putting up with my near-constant explanations of how all things relate to geography.
(Finally, I wish to thank you, the audience, for showing up. I realize that I am up against both the Green Bay Packers and the President of the United States tonight, so I appreciate that you are here.)
As you see by the lecture title, I will be dealing with geography and geographic literacy. Geography is a vast subject—it’s the whole world!—so I’m not going to cover every aspect of the discipline. I’ve been teaching since 1994 and still haven’t covered it all yet, so today I’m going to give you the high points of what geography is and why it is important to know.
Everyone thinks and acts geographically
One point to keep in mind throughout the presentation is that everyone thinks and acts geographically. We all make decisions in our daily lives based on our understanding of the spatial arrangement of places and people in the world around us.
I would like to begin by asking the following very simple question: Where is the Earth’s highest point? Here are three possibilities: Mt. Everest in the Himalayas along the border of Nepal and China; K2 in the Karakoram Range along the border of Pakistan and China; Mt. Chimborazo in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador.
I’ll let you chew on that for a few minutes before giving you the answer. As you saw by the title of today’s presentation, I will be talking about geography. But what is geography?
What is Geography?
Imagine if I commissioned the Western Survey Research Center to survey residents of Illinois about their perception of geography. If the survey asked whether they thought that knowing geography was important, I suspect that many respondents would say that it is. If asked “What do geographers do?” there would likely would be a wide range of answers. Some would say geographers make maps, others might say that they memorize countries, capitals and physical features and probably make their living coming up with questions for trivia contests and TV game shows.
Geography is not the memorization of the countries, capitals, rivers, mountains, and so on. It’s not to say that learning these things is unimportant. In fact, knowing toponyms—the names of places—can be very informative. For example, the abundance of Spanish toponyms in the Southwest or German toponyms in Wisconsin tells a lot about settlement history.
By the way, if you are going to take the time to learn toponyms, it’s important to remember that context matters.
If I showed you this this list of famous cities and told you to read the list aloud, you wouldn’t think much of it: Athens, Greece, Cairo, Egypt, Milan, Italy, and San Jose, Costa Rica. There’s nothing particularly special about this list per se. To most people, it’s just a list of four world cities.
If this same list was included in the survey of Illinoisans, but without the country names, you might be surprised at what you hear. These are all towns in Illinois but they are pronounced differently from their international counterparts (Ay-thens, Cay-ro, My-lan, and San Joes).
And what do you think would be the response if the survey asked people to name a nationally- or internationally-famous geographer? Do you know a nationally- or internationally famous geographer?
Not easy to do is it? Can you do it? I’m sure you wouldn’t have as much difficulty if I had asked you to name a famous economist, philosopher, artist, or musician, but coming up with a famous geographer isn’t easy.
Some of you may have come up with Michael Jordan, who majored in cultural geography at the University of North Carolina, but his fame has nothing to do with being a geographer.
Let’s go back to the question I posed a little bit ago: Where is the highest point on Earth? The answer to most people is simple: Mount Everest. But is it? At its summit, Everest 29,029 feet above mean sea level, K2 is 28,251 feet, and Chimborazo is a “paltry” 20,565 feet at its summit. If you know anything about the history of measuring elevations on Earth, you know there was a brief time when there was some debate over whether K2 was actually higher than Everest. When Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) measurement came into existence, the debate ended and the peak elevations were fixed to those which I just mentioned. But my question wasn’t, “Where is the highest point above sea level on Earth?” it was, “Where is the highest point on Earth?” Earth is not a perfect sphere, it is an ellipsoid. Or, to put it another way, Earth bulges in the middle. The distance from Earth’s center to the outer crust is greater at the equator than it is to either pole. Thus, if you measure from Earth’s center, the summit of Chimborazo extends approximately a mile and a half farther into space than the summit of Everest.
Now that you know the superlative nature of both Mt. Everest and Chimborazo, I need to ask the important follow-up question, “So what?” Aside from impressing your friends or doing well in a trivia contest, what does this information do for you?
Certainly, knowing which mountains are highest, that Budapest is the capital of Hungary, or that Amazon is a river in South America, not just an online retailer, are relevant and important. But knowing these things does not make one a geographer any more than knowing the periodic table makes one a chemist, or knowing the correct order of succession of Tudor monarchs makes one an historian.
In geography, it’s good to know that Everest has the highest elevation above mean sea level but it is far more important to know why it is the highest peak and what are the physical and human contexts of the Himalayas and this particular mountain?
For example, Everest is part of a massive mountain range separating the Indian subcontinent from Asia and this range influences weather, climate, politics, economics, agriculture, and culture for thousands of miles. A geographer might ask “What has been the impact of this mountain on the tourism economy of Nepal?” or “How has deforestation in the Himalayas affected flooding in lowland areas?” or “In what ways has mountain climbing negatively affected the region?” For example, in their attempt to conquer the mountain, climbers have littered the slopes and base camps with tons of trash, creating a new set of challenges for the region. Geographers are compelled to ask these and other questions, not to memorize endless lists of place names and obscure facts.
Geographers strive to understand Earth’s surface and the processes that shape it, the links between humans and the natural environment, and the spatial linkages among humans and their activities. I’m sure everyone in this room recognizes that humans are affected by Earth processes, that humans affect and alter the Earth, and that we affect each other. The geographer is concerned with the how, why, and where of these reciprocal relationships.
Geography as an Academic Discipline
The word geography originates with the Greek words geo, meaning Earth, and graphia, meaning to write about or describe. Literally, geography is the description of Earth. On the surface, this definition seems pretty straightforward, because “description of Earth” seems to indicate that geography is concerned with the “what of where”—the location of the world’s mountains, rivers, deserts, countries, cultures, and so on. But with any discipline, geography is not so simple. There multiple, and oftentimes complex, ways to describe the earth and the people who inhabit it.
Geography is both very old and fairly new. In one sense, geography is as old as humanity itself. Knowledge about Earth was as much about survival to our ancient ancestors as it was about curiosity. The scholarly origins of geography can be traced to ancient Greece. This is not to say that formalized geographical study doesn’t go back even further, to ancient Egypt or China, for example, but we are far more certain of its place in Greece and academic geography in the United States is a direct descendent of the works of Homer, Ptolemy, Eratosthenes, Plato and Aristotle.[i] As a formalized discipline that you find in colleges and universities, geography is relatively young.
Geography has long been part of primary and secondary educational systems of Europe and North America for a few centuries. In Europe, geography courses existed as far back as the 17th century. In North America it was taught as part of other subjects, like astronomy and navigation, as early as the 18th century.[ii]
The discipline made its entry into higher education in the 1800s when the first geography program was formed in the mid-1800s at the University of Berlin. At the end of the nineteenth century, Harvard became the first American college with to offer geography courses.[iii] Over the next three decades, geography experienced dramatic growth throughout higher education, although it remained absent from many research universities as well as from most liberal arts colleges. This early growth was short lived and by the onset of the Second World War, geography departments became increasingly marginalized in the academy.
The marginalization was rooted in two forces. First was the decline in acceptance of environmental determinism, which had dominated the field. Environmental determinism postulated that the physical environment is what determines the patterns of which human culture and behavior. People were the way they were entirely because of the physical conditions of where they were. Second, was a growing belief that at its core, geography was nothing more than a cataloging of Earth facts—a view reinforced by teaching methods that heavily relied on memorization of place names.[iv] And this view of geography was held beyond our colleges and universities. At the same time that geography departments began becoming marginalized in American higher education, geography courses were dramatically reduced or eliminated completely from primary and secondary education.
Examination of geography in higher education following World War II reveals what can best be described as “relative decline.” For the most part, enrollment in the discipline and the number of geography degrees awarded by colleges and universities grew in the post-War era. But enrollment and the number degrees awarded increased across the board as the baby boom, GI Bill and other financial aid structures transformed higher education. Geography did grow, but this growth was far less than what was being seen in disciplines like sociology, political science, and history.[v]
The post-War era also saw the elimination of geography departments at several leading universities. Harvard eliminated its department in 1948—its president declaring that “geography is not a university subject.”[vi] Stanford, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania dropped their departments in the 1960s and Michigan, Columbia, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago followed suit in the 1980s.[vii]
The decline of geography in the academy left the discipline unable to fully counter the perception that geography is nothing more than the assembly of Earth facts, that it is not academically rigorous, and certainly it is not science. As a whole, geographers did a poor job of responding and we saw the slow dismantling and reformatting of geographic education—in no small measure because we were squabbling amongst ourselves over what geography is and how it should be practiced.[viii] In the 1950s and 1960s, the “quantitative revolution” swept through many geography departments in the United States, resulting in a protracted period where we debated whether geography is a science, should be a science, or none of the above.
Further compounding academic geography’s image is how some geography departments go out of their way to disassociate themselves from instantly recognizable geography imagery such as National Geographic Magazine and the National Geographic Channel. Largely based on the notion that National Geographic promotes “popular” geography and not “academic” geography, departments have managed to disconnect themselves from something that engages people’s desire to learn more about our planet and people. Instead, we should have been tapping into this curiosity and channeling it into something far more comprehensive, rigorous, and, in my opinion, interesting.
While geography was undergoing transformation in U.S. colleges and universities, it is worth noting that the discipline has maintained a consistently strong presence in British and Canadian universities. Geographer R.J. Johnston attributes this stability partly to the fact that geographers at these institutions spent far less time and energy contemplating the philosophy of the discipline. Instead of becoming entangled in the with trying justify our discipline by defining once and for all who were are and what we do, British geographers adopted the ideology that “geography is what geographers do.”[ix]
While the discipline of geography was declining within higher education, it’s not like geographical concepts were being dismissed. In fact, there are countless of examples of educator who “discover” the importance of geographic inquiry. Of course, many times they think that these important concepts aren’t actually geographic in nature. So at the same time that geographic learning was promoted, the discipline was dismissed because of its simplicity. Thus, at the same time that geography faced programmatic declines, it had many co-opted and promoted by other disciplines. Primary and secondary schools stopped teaching geography in favor of “earth science” or “natural science” and “social science.”
At colleges and universities well-intentioned academics introduce “new and relevant” degree programs. When academicians became alarmed that students have no real sense of the connectivity between humans and the environment, they advocated for the inclusion of such coursework in the liberal arts. Geographers responded with a metaphorical, if not literal, “Hoorah! They finally realize our importance! Send us the students so they can learn!” To which the response was, “No, the students don’t really need geography; they need environmental studies.” Academicians also became alarmed that students have little sense of how people are connected to each other and that they lack a basic understanding of how things like language, politics, economics, and religion unite and divide us. Geographers again cried “Hoorah! They realize our importance! Send us the students so they can learn!” The response typically was “No, the students don’t really need geography, they need international studies.”
When geographers reply “what you have just described is geography” they usually are met by puzzled looks or blank stares.
I’m not arguing that environmental studies and international studies are exclusively the domain of geography; both fields of study are enriched by a wide range of academic disciplines. What I challenge is the notion that these fields of study are somehow either exclusive of geography or that geography’s contribution is to teach only about place names and landforms. Geography is central to environmental studies and it is central to international studies. I should note that Western has an Institute for Environmental Studies (IES) and a Center for International Studies (CIS) and both are important contributors to the furtherance of our institutional mission. IES has partnered with geography department faculty members in research endeavors, such as those conducted at the Post Wildlife Sanctuary, and CIS works with the department to promote international education at Western.
In sum, for the much of the latter half of the twentieth century, geography developed an identity crisis whereby most people don’t really understand the nature of the discipline. In his 1981 presidential address to the Association of American Geographers, John Fraser Hart described the geography’s identity dilemma this way:
Geography becomes important, then it is cast aside. And most of the blame for the dramatic shifts are largely the fault of the discipline itself. Because geography has lacked a sustained, coherent identity, it has been difficult for academicians to convince their peers of geography’s relevance.[x]
That was thirty years ago and his words held true through the end of the twentieth century. The good news is that things have changed.
As we neared the end of the twentieth century, public discourse began to focus on the declining skills of American students when comparisons were made to their peers in Europe and Asia. In particular, the lack of basic geographic knowledge received increasing scrutiny. Most of us have encountered examples of this in our lives. You may have encountered the person who thought that Africa is a country or the person who wanted to drive to Hawaii.
As an undergraduate student here at Western, I gave campus tours to prospective students and their families—we were called Student Ambassadors back then. One day, I walked into the Admissions office to find the office abuzz. “You’re not going to believe what just happened,” one of the office staff told me. “We just had a man in here who was quite flustered. He said that he had been accepted at Macomb Community College and he had driven all the way from Michigan to check out the campus—but he didn’t know where it was. He had been driving around town all afternoon, but couldn’t find.” She asked him if he meant Spoon River College. “No,” he said, “it’s Macomb Community College. I have the letter right here.” At which point she took the letter, read the address, paused, and said, “It says here that Macomb Community College is in Clinton Township… Michigan.” He had driven all the way to Macomb from Michigan to check out a college that was about an hour from where he lived.
There also have been infamous geographic flubs, such as Kellie Pickler’s 2007 appearance on the TV show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”
Geographic literacy refers to baseline, fundamental geographic knowledge of things like countries, capitals, rivers and mountains. It also includes the ability to think critically about geographic subject matter. In 1988, the National Geographic Society funded a Gallop survey conducted among 18- to 24-year olds in nine countries. The results were disheartening: Americans ranked sixth, with many unable to locate Central America, the Pacific Ocean or the Persian Gulf on an unlabeled world map. At the time, National Geographic president Gilbert Grosvenor remarked “Have you heard of the lost generation? We have found them. They are lost. They haven’t the faintest idea where they are.”[xi]
National Geographic funded two more surveys, in 2002 and 2006, the latter of which was focusing entirely on geographic literacy among students within the United States. Again, young adults between the ages of 18 and 24—the age range for most people in this room—were asked about their geographic knowledge and their views of the importance of geographic knowledge in today’s world.[xii] Here some highlights from the survey:
If one lacks basic geographic literacy, one cannot answer geographic questions, particularly those relevant to civic engagement and responsibility. More worrisome than the inability to answer such questions is that many people don’t realize that we should be asking geographically-based questions in the first place. And perhaps most troubling of all: many people just do not care.
While educators and policy makers alike are rightly concerned with the general lack of fundamental geographic knowledge among our populous, it is important to note that other disciplines are grappling with similar problems. Students enter college lacking fundamental knowledge in history and the sciences. It seems each year that institutions of higher learning establish new records for the number of incoming students needing to take remedial mathematics and remedial writing courses.
Geography Concepts and Tools
If “geography is what geographers do,” what is it that geographers do?
Geography is a true liberal art in that it spans the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.
Generally, the field breaks down into two main sub-areas: the examination of spatial patterns and processes in the natural world, and in the examination of spatial patterns and processes of people. Thus geographers oftentimes describe themselves either as “physical geographers” or “human geographers.” Geographers are so accustomed to this terminology that it rarely occurs to us how these monikers sound to those outside the discipline. My background is in urban and transportation geography. Several years ago I was having a conversation about geography with a friend of mine and I offhandedly mentioned that I was a human geographer. She had a confused look and then said, “Human geographer? As opposed to what? A geographer who is a fish?”
Physical geographers examine Earth’s physical processes and how these processes not only transform Earth’s surface but also how they and affect the distribution of ecosystems. Human geographers focus on the patterns of human activity: our settlements, cultures, politics, economics, and countless manifestations of our existence and interaction.
Geography is also spatial. As an aside, when I taught in Louisiana, I found that this statement was somewhat confusing because in the Deep South, “spatial” is the pronunciation for what we in the Midwest pronounce as “special.” I hadn’t thought much of the regional differentiation of the pronunciation of special this word until one day when a student asked me, “What’s so special about geography?” By spatial, I mean that geographers study the connections between people and the environment in the context of physical space and through time.[xiii]
As I mentioned at the top of the lecture, we all think spatially. Every one of us considers the spatial arrangement of places, objects and people in the world in our daily lives. Spatial thinking is what molds how we perceive the world around us. It dictates the route we take to work, how we run our errands, and whether we choose to go to Chicago instead of Minneapolis.
This slide provides two illustrations of our perception of the world. The figure on the left shows what can best be described as a “fear map” of a Philadelphia neighborhood. The darker areas indicated zones where residents felt less safe—locations of gang hangouts, crack houses, etc. People in the neighborhood would travel much longer distances than would be expected in order to avoid these areas.[xiv] The figure on the right shows a “mental map” of Macomb. When people perceive space as important, it is reflected on our behavior. This map shows highways, WIU, and the Square. It also shows the train station, the WIU golf course, and the state police headquarters—perhaps a reflection of much time being spent at each location.
Looking at the world using a spatial perspective allows us to see the interaction of cities and countries in the context of economic activity, cultural changes and so on.
Geography is concerned with places and regions. Geographers are keenly aware how our lives and identities are connected to individual places and to regions. Because the term “region” is used frequently, it is worth discussing its use in geography. In one sense, regions are a way for geographers to organize information. Regions are defined by spatial criteria. They occupy space and are defined by internal characteristics.
There are formal regions which are defined by internal homogeneity, like German-speaking Europe or the Corn Belt. We have functional regions, which are defined by interaction between a core location or activity and the surrounding hinterland. Examples include a city its surrounding commuting zone or the service area of a hospital. We also have vernacular regions, regions that are commonly known to but sometimes difficult to define.
For example, all of us in this room are familiar with the part of the United States called the Midwest. But where exactly is the Midwest? You might get different definitions if you talk to people in Ohio or Nebraska. And is the Midwest defined only by territorial extent? What about economic activities, dialect, or cultural norms? The Middle East is another widely used example. You realize that “Middle East” actually represents a particular view of the world? What is it east of and how is it in the middle of those places which are “East”? The name reflects a European view of the world where the Balkans and Turkey were the Near East, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia were the Middle East, and China, Korea and Japan were the Far East. The Middle East today generally includes Iran and Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula as well as Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. (And let me take this opportunity to correct common mispronunciations: Iran and Iraq are pronounced Ee-Rahn and Ee-Rahk, not Eye-Ran and Eye-Rack. As I tell my students every semester “eye ran” is what you put at the end of the sentence, “when the dog chased me, I ran!”)
Geography is concerned both with environment and society. We study the reciprocal linkages that exist between humans and the environment. We study how physical systems affect humans, such as the impacts of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Irene or the earthquake/tsunami events of the Indian Ocean and Japan.
We also study how human actions impact the physical environment, whether it be mountaintop removal coal mining practices in Appalachia or the impact of irrigation agriculture on the Aral Sea.
“It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.” These words famously uttered by the comedian Steven Wright get at one of the fundamental principles of geography: scale matters. Geographers examine phenomena at the global scale, and at the neighborhood scale and at all points in between.
Geography at the Dawn of the 21st Century
If we look at where geography is right now and what the future holds for the discipline, things look very bright. Geography is experiencing a renaissance in the twenty-first century. It has experienced dramatic growth in the past decade because of the convergence of social, natural, political and economic forces. Some have been so bold to refer to the present time as the “Era of the Geographer.”[xv]
One factor responsible for the elevation of geography was the reaction to the surveys I discussed earlier which pointed to shocking levels of ignorance of basic geographic phenomena and concepts. The 1988 Gallop survey sparked action among policy makers and educators and the 2002 and 2006 follow-up surveys have kept geography in the public eye. Organizations like the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education, and the National Geographic Society have implemented programs to introduce or expand geographic education in primary and secondary schools. State Geographic Alliances were formed to provide resources for teachers—Illinois is one of the few states to have both a Geographic Alliance and a Geographic Society promoting the discipline. There is now a nationally-recognized Geography Awareness Week which occurs in November and National Geographic and Google sponsor a National Geography Bee, akin to the National Spelling Bee, in which winners of state-level bees compete the National Bee, airing on the National Geographic Channel and hosted by Alex Trebek.
For many years, no Advanced Placement test was available in geography. The 2000-2001 school year saw the introduction of the AP Human Geography test. In that year 3,272 students took the test. Last year over 68,000 students took the test.[xvi]
Policy makers have affirmed geography’s importance. At the 1989 Governor’s Education Summit, a little-known governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton pushed to highlight geography as a “core academic discipline.” In the 1994 Improving America’s School Act and the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act geography was named as a core subject.
Of course, being named a “core subject” doesn’t necessarily mean that people immediately jumped on the geography bandwagon. In 2004, only 22 states and the District of Columbia offered stand-alone, elective geography courses at the high school level. If geography was offered in the other states, it was found as part of a social science or history curriculum. In grades 6-8, 15 states offered an independent and required geography courses.[xvii] When these data were collected, the researchers were looking only for the presence of geography courses somewhere in the state. Having a geography course present in a state did not mean that all districts or all schools had stand-along geography courses.
Geography also is the only core discipline to receive no dedicated federal funding.[xviii] History, math, science, reading, foreign languages and the arts each have dedicated funding –many of which in excess of $100 million annually—but not geography. This may change soon, however. Earlier this year on March 2, the Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act was introduced in Congress. Currently in the first step of the legislative process, the bill calls for funding of… wait for it… $15 million per year for five years. It’s not much, but it certainly is more than zero.
A second force for growth in geography has been the proliferation of geospatial technologies such as remote sensing, GPS, and most importantly, GIS. All of these technologies aren’t particularly new, but it has been only recently that they have grown from niche use to near ubiquity in government and business. Remote sensing technologies are those that do what the name implies: sense things remotely. Examples include aerial photography and satellite imagery. We see remote sensing used in a wide range of applications from land use surveys, habitat modeling, and weather forecasting.
I have found that the acronyms GPS and GIS are confused by many people.
As I mentioned a little bit ago, GPS is the acronym for “Global Positioning System,” the space-based global navigation satellite system. There are several satellites in orbit around our planet transmitting time and orbital location information. An earth-based receiver uses this information using signals from at least three satellites to determine the coordinate position of the receiver. We use GPS to determine where things are on Earth, and we can record this locational information for analysis with GIS.
GIS is the acronym for Geographic Information System—a powerful set of computer-based tools used to access, analyze, and visualize spatially-referenced information. GIS is designed to store, process, and output huge volumes of data. In fact, GIS is one of the best tools for dealing with geospatial data—not just for the processing and modeling capabilities, but because GIS allows you to display analyses in the form a map—which oftentimes is the only way to be able to understand huge volumes of data.
Although it is a slightly flawed way to describe the difference between the two, think of GPS as what we use to gather spatial information and GIS as what we use to analyze and display spatial information. GPS and GIS are linked but they are not interchangeable terms.
Geospatial technologies are not obscure technologies used only by academics. They are critical to most business and government operations. We live in a world where an estimated 80 percent of all data have a spatial component. In 2006, the Department of Labor declared the top three industries for future job growth potential as health care, nanotechnology, and geospatial technology. As things stand right now, businesses which utilize GIS are having a difficult time filling jobs—the geospatial market is growing at a rate of nearly 35 percent annually. The Department of Labor estimates there will be 350,000 new jobs in geospatial technologies by 2018.[xix]
You likely are well aware of one of the popular spin-offs of the emergence of geospatial technologies: the recent the proliferation of web-based mapping applications. A hallmark of geography is the communication of spatial information and analysis though the visual. And much of what we communicate visually is in the form of a map.
Maps are the most commonly used tool to represent spatial relationships, which why cartography and map analysis play such a prominent role in the discipline.
The visualization of spatial information through web-based media has profoundly affected the way we think about the world. We have near-immediate access to geographic information these days. People can use internet-based applications like Google Maps, Mapquest, and Google Earth to dynamically visualize the world. Corporations, organizations, and governments use these applications to disseminate information and individuals can personalize map viewing.
Because of the widespread use of web-based mapping applications, we are seeing a shift in how people use maps. We no longer view maps as static resources. They are dynamic, interactive, and allow users the ability to explore. Applications like Google Earth also tap into vast web-based resources such as the World Factbook, data banks from organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank, and yes, even Wikipedia. In the last few years we have seen this technology available on mobile phones and in automobiles. As a result, we are developing a population who has moved beyond perceiving spatial information an “interesting resource” to an perceiving spatial information as “necessary for functioning in today’s society.”
As geospatial technologies and information have spread, geography has been embraced by other disciplines. GIS in particular is increasingly being integrated into the breadth of degree programs offered in colleges and universities. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had colleagues at Western remark that students in their departments are far less competitive if they haven’t included GIS as part of their coursework. Western has a minor in GIS and a post-baccalaureate certificate in Environmental GIS and several GIS courses.
So where do we see geography in concert with other disciplines? Pretty much everywhere.
While not showing all areas where geography relates to other disciplines, this slide is one attempt to show the overlap of geography with a wide range of disciplines. Western offers courses in many of these overlapping areas including Urban Geography, Biogeography, Population Geography, Geomorphology, Political Geography, and Climatology.
Paul Krugman was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics in large part for his work in economic geography.
Geospatial technologies are essential technologies in the coal, oil and gas industries, in precision agriculture, and in city planning.
Indeed, geographical approaches to problem-solving are found throughout history.
One famous early example of what we now refer to as Medical Geography was John Snow’s 1854 map of cholera cases in London. The city was experiencing an outbreak and at that time the widely-held belief was that cholera was an airborne illness. By mapping the locations of the cholera cases, he was able to identify the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street.
A little while ago I showed a “fear map” and a “mental map.” These maps are used both in geography and psychology as ways to help us understand human behavior within the physical environment.
Law enforcement uses geography and GIS to map crime clusters. We can map the crimes and other variables, such as time of day, to allow enforcing agencies to direct or redirect resources. Other uses of GIS include the creation of maps, such as you see here, which identify those parts of cities where sex offenders cannot live or loiter.
In recent years, we have seen the integration of geospatial technologies in historical research.
For example, this viewshed map of the Gettysburg battlefield. Geography Anne Kelly Knowles applied a GIS model which integrates a digital elevation model of the local terrain to determine what General Robert E. Lee could have seen from the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary.
Locally, I led a team of students in a project to reconstruct the former town of Vishnu Springs, located on property owned by Western. We used GPS in combination with the original site survey to generate digital coordinates of the town, which were integrated into our GIS system. We used GIS to create a map of the town, including lots and structures. We then used photo records and the software Google SketchUp to generate digital models of the structures which you see here.
Students tell me all the time that they are interested in sports, which has absolutely nothing to do with geography. So I ask them what their favorite team is. Then I ask them why that team is there. This map, while a bit dated, shows blackout areas for Major League baseball teams. Blackout areas are areas where local broadcasters have priority over national broadcasters in the televising of games. While the map shows the geography of sorts television, it also is a fairly good reflection team dominance, what I referred to as the “fanshed” a bit earlier.
And yes, there is even geography in the internet, as illustrated by Paul Bulter’s 2010 visualization of Facebook friendships.[xx]
I mentioned terrorist attacks and natural disasters a bit ago. September 11, 2011 (This Sunday) marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. While certainly not the first terrorist attack the world has seen, the size and scope of the September 11 attacks was transformative, particularly in the United States. We sought to learn who was behind the attacks, where they were from, why we were targeted. Subsequent high profile attacks in Bali, Madrid, London, and India, along with the launching of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have kept the importance of geography in our discourse.
Recent natural disasters have also pushed geography to the forefront. We have seen devastation from earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes at levels that are staggering, if not borderline incomprehensible. Geography and its integrative analysis of physical and human processes allows us understand the scale and scope of these events and also to enable us to better prepare for future such events. The greatest humanitarian crisis of the past thirty years is occurring right now—the famine occurring in eastern Africa. To date, tens of thousands have died and millions more are at risk of starvation. As geographers are well aware, famine usually is not just the result of drought. It is the combination of drought with other economic, political, and social factors which combine to make a bad situation catastrophic.
Crisis mapping has become an indispensible tool both in planning for and responding to a wide range of emergencies such as flooding, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, and famines. The importance of the discipline of geography and the tools of geography increases each year.
Geography: Looking Ahead
I would like to leave you tonight by looking forward.
In 2010, the National Research Council convened a Committee on Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences in the Next Decade. The committee was tasked with formulating a list of high-priority research areas in which geography will figure prominently. Their findings were presented as a series of questions within the research areas, which I pose to you now.[xxi] To the students in attendance, pay particular attention. These are questions that we all face and we need capable people attempting to answer them. Perhaps we will turn to you for answers.
The first area of inquiry is how to understand and respond to environmental change.
- How are we changing the physical environment of Earth’s surface?
- How can we best preserve biological diversity and protect endangered ecosystems?
- How are climate and other environmental changes affecting the vulnerabilities of human—environmental systems?
The second area of inquiry is how to promote sustainability.
- How and where will 10 billion people live?
- How will we sustainably feed everyone in the coming decade and beyond?
- How does where people live affect their health? Added to this question is how the interconnectedness of people affects health—particularly in the context of regional and global health epidemics.
The third area of inquiry is how to recognize and cope with the spatial reorganization of economy and society.
- How is the movement of people, goods, and ideas transforming the world?
- How is economic globalization affecting inequality?
- How are geopolitical shifts influencing peace and stability? Just in the past nine months, we have seen the toppling of three governments in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Syria and Yemen could have the same fate in the near future. Other countries in North Africa and Southwest Asia have instituted reforms to avoid a similar fate.
Each of these questions is broad and complex. In order to answer any of them, one not only needs a broad, strong background in the liberal arts, one needs geography. Geography is a bridge connecting the liberal arts, and geographic inquiry will be particularly relevant for researchers and policy makers grappling with these issues.
In June, 2011, Charlie Rose interviewed author David McCullough following the release of McCullough’s most recent book The Greater Journey.[xxii] During the interview, the conversation turned to education when Rose asked, “If your grandchild came to you and said ‘I have no idea what I want to study in college.’ Would you say study literature, or history or languages?’” McCullough responded, “Yes. All of the above. Liberal arts education is the best thing you can have. If somebody wanted to become a journalist I would say, ‘Don’t study journalism. Study Arabic. Study philosophy.’”
Add geography to his list as well. And add geography to any list of critical disciplines all persons should study, regardless of their vocation or avocation.
I thank you for coming tonight and for making this lecture part of your day. Have a pleasant evening and a safe journey home.
[i] Martin, Geoffrey J. and Preston E. James. 1993. All Possible Worlds: A History of Geographical Ideas, 3rd Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
[ii] Vining, James W. 1990. The National Council for Geographic Education: The First Seventy-Five Years and Beyond. Indiana, PA: NCGE.
[iii] James, Preston E. and Clarence F. Jones. 1954. American Geography: Inventory & Prospect. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
[iv] Murphy, Alexander B. 2007. “Geography’s Place in Higher Education in the United States.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 31(1): 121–141.
[v] Hill, A.D. and L. A. La Prairie. 1989: “Geography in American Education.” In Gaile, G. and Willmott, C., editors, Geography in America, Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1-26.
[vi] Smith, Neil. 1987. “Academic War Over the Field of Geography: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947-1951.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77(2): 155-172.
[vii] Murphy, op. cit., p. 6.
[viii] For an early challenge to the discipline from within, calling for a scientific approach to geography based on the search for geographical laws, see Fred K. Schaefer’s 1953 “Exceptionalism in Geography: A Methodological Examination. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 43(1):226-245.
[ix] Johnston, R. J. 1991. Geography and Geographers: Anglo-American Human Geography since 1945, 4th ed. New York: Edward Arnold.
[x] Hart, John Fraser. 1982. “The Highest Form of the Geographer’s Art.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 72(1): 1-29.
[xi] “Americans Falter on Geography Test,” New York Times, July 28, 1988, I16, national edition.
[xii] National Geographic Society. 2006. 2006 Geographic Literacy Survey. Washington: National Geographic Society.
[xiii] For a further elaboration of these characteristics of geography and the learning standards upon which they are based, please see Geography education Standards Project. 1994. Geography For Life. Washington: National Geographic Research and Exploration
[xiv] Knox, Paul L. and Linda McCarthy. 2005. Urbanization,2nd ed. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., pp. 393-4.
[xv] National Research Council, Committee on Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences in the Next Decade. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington: National Academy of Sciences, p. x.
[xvi] College Board. 2010. Program Summary Report 2010. New York. Available online at http://professionals.collegeboard.com/data-reports-research/ap/data.
[xvii] Moore, Zachary A. 2011. “Status of Geography Curricula and Assessment in the States.” In Gary S. Elbow, David J. Rutherford and Christopher Shearer, eds., Geographic Literacy in the United States: Challenges and Opportunities in the NCLB Era. Washington: National Council for Geographic Education.
[xviii] Elbow, Gary S., David J. Rutherford and Christopher Shearer, editors. 2011. Geographic Literacy in the United States: Challenges and Opportunities in the NCLB Era. Washington: National Council for Geographic Education.
[xx] Butler, Paul. 2010. Visualizing Friendships. Available at http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=469716398919
[xxi] National Research Council, op. cit.