Why We Need to Improve Geographic Literacy

Originally published in the Kansas City Star: November 28, 2009


Year after year surveys reveal that only 37 percent of young Americans know where Iraq is and a large minority cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map.


Like clockwork, commentators then write how horrible it is that America is so geographically illiterate. While it is true that geographic ignorance is a big problem, these commentators do geography no favors.

Geography has long been thought of as merely the memorization of places. This is how it is taught by many schools.


The notion that geography is just a memory game and not a science led some of the nation’s finest educational institutions including Harvard University to stop teaching geography in the 1940s and 1950s. Geography has been in exile ever since.


Geography is more than place memorization. It is a spatial science that involves studying what is where, why it is there and why people should care. This expands geography to include places, cultures, environmental patterns and behavior by persons and cultures.


A geographic background helps people understand economic patterns such as why the Rust Belt is where it is and how the Asian economic tigers managed to feed each other’s growth by capitalizing on their shared access to the Pacific Ocean.


Having information on the layout of various Afghan ethnic groups and how they relate to one another would help coalition forces in predicting how the Taliban will try to spread its insurgency.


Finally, home buyers could save themselves misfortune in the future if they learn how to read Geological Survey maps, which would tell them if their home is in a flood plain or in an area full of sinkholes.


When people see how geography can be useful in everything from global planning to money making to predicting future weather, then greater interest and geographic literacy will develop. Excellent free tools such as Google Earth allow one to import and create data that can be overlaid with maps to study spatial relationships.


But most of all, teachers must convey geography properly. Bringing these elements together will improve geographic literacy. The best thing about emphasizing geography is that it does not have to take away from other subjects.


Unlike engineering or medicine where most of the knowledge requires extensive full-time study to learn, geographic literacy can be learned from and applied to other sciences such as environmental science, anthropology, economics, meteorology, archaeology, history and statistics.


Even those who are not students can learn geography by traveling, reading newspapers or looking at maps.