Florida? Where's that?
Ten years ago at a convention in Baltimore, Lydia Lewis, who teaches U.S. history to fifth graders at a private school in Washington, met what she described as a “bright, college-educated young woman in her 20s.” Lewis was busily reviewing her notes for a slide presentation on geography when she felt someone tapping her on the shoulder.
Turning around, she saw the young woman standing with a quizzical expression on her face. In her hand was a slide depicting a map of the United States. She held it upside down so that Florida was in the north and asked Lewis innocently, “Ma’am, which way does this slide go in?”
“I was completely shocked,” Lewis recalled. “But being a teacher, I thought this was one of those teachable moments so I started to explain to her the right way to look at the map. But she simply wasn’t interested.”
As teachers across the country try to help their students meet test score standards set by policies like the No Child Left Behind law, there is one subject that has been left behind: geography.
Geography extends beyond where rivers are located to how topography impacts society. Geography is taught as a stand-alone subject in schools from Russia to France to India. But in most American public schools the study of the world is generally buried somewhere in social studies and history. How geography is covered is often left to the discretion of individual schools or teachers--to the dismay of experts.
“There are a lot of opponents to this style of teaching geography,” said Dr. Michal LeVasseur, executive director of the National Council of Geographic Education. “It will eventually be to the detriment of the youngsters in this country.”
LeVasseur is not the only one concerned about flagging geography education in an era of globalization. Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., recently introduced in Congress the Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act.
If passed, the bill would authorize competitive grants through the Department of Education to improve K-12 geography curriculum, teacher training and instructional materials.
Something needs to be done, according to a survey conducted jointly last year by National Geographic magazine and the New York-based consumer research body Roper Public Affairs.
Despite constant news coverage of Iraq since the war there began in 2003, 63 percent of Americans age 18 to 24 failed to correctly locate the country on a map. Seventy percent could not find Iran or Israel. Nine in ten couldn't locate Afghanistan and 54 percent were unaware that Sudan is a country in Africa.
Respondents were similarly ignorant about their own country. Half could not find New York state on a map of the United States. A third could not place Louisiana, even though Hurricane Katrina put this southeastern state in the spotlight in 2005.
“It is a troubling trend,” LeVasseur said.
Lewis, too, is disturbed by students' lack of basic geography skills. “Many of them think that Africa is a country and not a continent,” she said.
Lewis taught in a public school in Oklahoma for 16 years before deciding to switch to a private school, where, she said, she doesn't have to spend as much time preparing pupils to pass standardized tests--which don’t include geography.
Some state boards of education, however, still maintain that the subject is taught adequately. “Geography is one of the strands of the state curriculum standards, so in every grade geography is very much addressed,” said Francis Mackl, an instruction specialist in the social studies department of the New York City Department of Education.
Whether she is right, some students just don’t care. Michael Calvert, an eighth grader who attends a public school in Los Angeles, feels that he doesn’t need to study more geography. “We do learn about different places in the world when we study history. Isn’t that the same thing?”
Michael's misunderstanding of the discipline might be related to the way he is taught the subject in school. Michael N. Solem, the educational affairs director of the Association of American Geographers, said that in addition to being under tremendous pressure to produce good test scores, public school teachers face another problem when it comes to teaching geography. “Most teachers have not studied the subject in college themselves.”
His view was echoed by Alexander B. Murphy, a geography professor at the University of Oregon.
"The discipline is not as firmly entrenched in U.S. colleges and universities as subjects such as history, biology and economics,” Murphy said. “Geography departments are generally smaller than those of neighboring disciplines, and there are many small colleges, and even some prominent universities, that do not have geography programs.”
Among them are Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
"The fact that geography is missing in these institutions, which are quite influential in setting the agenda and produce a lot of people who go on to occupy important positions in government, is a big problem,” Murphy said. “Many of the senior echelons of government and other decision-making authorities have no exposure to the discipline which perhaps explains some of the problems we have had around the world.”
However, Solem sees hopeful signs, thanks to the introduction of the advanced placement course in geography for high school students, which allows them to earn college credit in the subject. The course helps students develop critical thinking skills through the application and analysis of the fundamental concepts of geography.
The number of 12th-grade students taking the advanced placement geography exam soared to 21,088 last year from 3,272 in 2001. Solem believes that’s one reason why the number of undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. degrees conferred in the subject rose to 6,000 last year from 1,000 in 1950.
Murphy, however, still worries about the state of geography education in elementary schools.
“All I can say, without sounding slightly less than completely pessimistic, is that it is taught in more schools than it was 10 years ago,” he said. “That is not to say that there is not a fundamental problem.”