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Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Holloway Hall

Where in the World is the Tripoli Shore?
Alexis Aguilar
Geography

Every semester I give students in my introductory Physical Geography class a blank map of the world and ask them to label some of the world’s major physical features. More often than I’d like to see, students will place the Andes Mountains in Europe or the Amazon Forest in Africa. One time, a student drew Iraq as a big island in the middle of the Atlantic, and another drew the U.S. with an ocean where Mexico was supposed to be. Examples such as this expose a need to improve geographic literacy in our schools. But, what is geographic literacy and why is it important?

Many students come into my introductory classes thinking that Geography is about learning the names and locations of places. Yes it is, I tell them, but it is much more than that. It’s about our planet, how it works, and our relationship to it. I often quote one of the most famous, and uncomplicated, definitions of our discipline by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan: “Geography is the study of the earth as the home of people.” Thus, Geography at its most basic level is about understanding how humans affect our physical environment, and how we, in turn, are affected by it. But Geography does this not only on a local, but on a regional and global basis. It is not only about learning the locations of places, but understanding those places.

Places all around the world have been changing. At the end of the Cold War the United States emerged as the world´s only superpower. The biggest geopolitical change since has been the gradual erosion of its hegemony on the global stage. We have seen the rise of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Latin American countries have elected left-leaning governments to the chagrin of the U.S. State Department. Most recently, the people of the Middle East have risen against regimes that the U.S. has long supported (even Libya’s strongman Gaddafi was friendly to U.S. economic interests).

As Americans become accustomed to a more pluralistic world where one or two superpowers no longer call the shots, we can ill afford to remain ignorant of the world around us. But the need for geographic literacy goes beyond the international arena. At home, our demographics are in a state of flux. Our population is aging; the population of Latinos and other minorities is rapidly increasing especially among the younger age groups. Our environment is being degraded by climate change, suburban sprawl, and the production of dirty energy such as oil and coal. These issues are creating social and economic conflicts; and all are matters with which Geography concerns itself.

In these days of budget cuts to public colleges and universities, Geography departments and programs are among the first to go. Geography is somehow not considered as important as traditional disciplines like Biology or Economics. Americans have less of a geographic tradition than other people around the world. Perhaps because of our perceived dominance over other countries and over our own environment we have felt no need to understand what we already control.

“What is the elevation at sea level?” a student asked me, reminding me of the neglect into which Geography has fallen in our education system. She had heard that it was 1000 feet. “Is that right?” she asked. I told her that at sea level the elevation is “sea level” or zero. “Yes,” she replied as the answer suddenly became obvious to her, “that makes sense.” It should also make sense that if we expect this country to be able to effectively address current and future environmental, political, and social transformations, we will need to become a more geographically literate society. From elementary school through college students need to learn more about places at home and abroad: where they are, what they look like, and what their people are like.

 

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