Saturday, April 07, 2018

From the Archives - 'Teaching Geography: A Valuable Enterprise' (1997)

I first wrote about this topic in the late 1980s. This article appeared in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot on April 7, 1997, under the headline "Teaching Geography: A Valuable Enterprise."

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Lord Chesterfield, the 18th century English statesman, once remarked: "The world can doubtless never be well known by theory: practice is absolutely necessary; but surely it is of great use to a young man, before he sets out for that country, full of mazes, windings and turnings, to have at least a general map of it, made by some experienced traveller.''

Healy Tower Georgetown University Rick Sincere teaching geography
Healy Tower, Georgetown University
When I was a child in elementary school, my teachers insisted that my classmates and I draw maps of all the major countries and regions of the world. Being all thumbs when it comes to handling a crayon or pencil, my grades were always low, mostly Cs. Nonetheless, I learned geography: I learned where things are and the relationship of one thing to another.

Today's students are apparently not being taught where things are. The serious teaching of geography in the schools seems to have disappeared. This is distressing.

For example, a few years ago at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University - America's premier institution for the teaching of international affairs, alma mater of President Bill Clinton - almost a third of the brightest and most competitive freshmen in the school's history failed a basic geography test, even after taking a one-credit course in the subject. Earlier, of the 225 students who tried to test out of the course, only 23 passed, and of those, 16 were not U.S. citizens.

The questions on this exam were not difficult, but basic: What is the capital of China? Where is the Persian Gulf? Who are the two main ethnic groups of Cyprus? Through what countries does the Danube River flow?

Other, similar tests and surveys show similarly disturbing results. Many high school students tested a couple of years ago could not find the United States on a world map, a good fraction pointed to Brazil as the answer.

The consequences of this ignorance are grave. As Georgetown Dean Charles E. Pirtle put it, "How can we expect our students to understand news reports out of the Persian Gulf when they don't know where it is, much less where Kuwait, Bahrain and the Straits of Hormuz are?''

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick notes that "many of our most bitter foreign-policy disputes are a direct consequence of the fact that Americans decided sometime not to study geography anymore. It is impossible to think sensibly about foreign affairs without knowing what is where.''

Jeane Kirkpatrick teaching Geography Rick Sincere
Jeane Kirkpatrick photo by Rick Sincere
Ambassador Kirkpatrick explains: "In foreign policy, geography is destiny. What gives the U.S. a vastly different stake in Nicaragua than in, say, Burundi? Burundi is my example of a very remote place. I have been there, and I can testify that it is a very remote place. I do not think we should be indifferent to the hardships of its people, but I do believe that Burundi is less important to us than Nicaragua. The difference is rooted in geography.''

Knowledge about the static facts of geography - as real estate brokers say, "location, location, location'' - is important because other social factors can be so fluid and dynamic. When Ambassador Kirkpatrick commented on the differences between Nicaragua and Burundi, a Marxist regime in Nicaragua was threatening the security of the United States and its allies in the Western Hemisphere. Today, Nicaragua is free (if still troubled) while Burundi is amidst a maelstrom of conflict and pestilence that includes refugee flows, civil war in neighboring Zaire and Rwanda and endemic ethnic violence. Yet without knowing the facts about these countries - territorial size, population, economic products and neighbors - we cannot wisely judge the importance of recent changes and coming trends. As citizens, we cannot make well-grounded decisions about U.S. policy toward these places.

The new standards of learning and standards of accreditation for Virginia schools include a renewed emphasis on geography (among the other social sciences). The new standards suggest strongly that geography be taught in grade 10, although the Arlington public schools have a nationally recognized, model program that requires geography in grade 8. The Arlington sequence is more logical than the state's version, because teaching geography in eighth grade girds students with the conceptual tools and facts they need to learn world history, economics and other high school subjects. Every Arlington student I have encountered remembers the geography course fondly, and all agree that it definitely prepared them for future studies.

The task of other Virginia schools is clear: Reintroduce geography teaching as a separate discipline with an emphasis on facts. Children should be able to name the state capitals at an early age, the capitals of foreign countries soon afterward, and by high school should be able to fill in the blanks on a world map, naming oceans and rivers, mountain ranges and islands, cities and nations. Should we expect less?

Memo: Richard Sincere is co-chair of the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington Public Schools.

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