Alarm Bells

We in the geography community here in Illinois recently received an alarming email from the Chair of a Social Studies Department in a medium-sized town in western Illinois. She explained that her administration is concerned that the teaching of geography, specifically where countries are located, is insignificant information.

As President of the Geographic Society of Chicago, I would like to speak to that notion.

Everyone has read the articles about Americans’ geographic illiteracy. “Six in 10 Americans cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006. Another paper reported that “1 in 8 don’t know Alaska is a state.” The reports keep coming.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” recently concluded that only 23% of fourth-graders, 30% of 8th graders, and a meager 21% of twelfth-graders were considered proficient in their understanding of geography.

Certainly, ignorance of our world map is widespread and alarming in itself. But geographic illiteracy is much more profound than being able to locate Iraq or Alaska on a map.

Undoubtedly, the “wheres” are important, but they are merely the alphabet of geography. Reciting the alphabet is not the same as learning how to read. The same is true of geographic literacy. The “wheres” are the building blocks, but the “whys”—why the world looks and functions as it does—provide the interconnecting principles for understanding our world. Geography is a study of the physical Earth, as well as a study of the world’s people.

Our citizens, the caretakers of our planet and leaders of our country, are graduating from school with little or no training in geography. Without geography, how can we understand Earth’s patterns—its climate regions, its weather systems, its cultures, its population patterns, its agricultural demands? How can we understand the effects of our actions or how these patterns can be disrupted by war, pollution, poverty, globalization, population growth, or climate change?

Geography is an integrating discipline that informs us about the world’s people and how they interact with the land we live on, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Like a piece of fabric, geography is where all of Earth’s threads are interwoven. Pull one thread out and others unravel. We need this critically important subject to be an essential part of our K-12 curriculum. For the future of our country, we must insist that all our citizens be geographically literate.

Readers of this Geo-Blog, please add your opinions here so that we can help prevent the disintegration of geography in American classrooms.

Celeste Fraser, President
Geographic Society of Chicago