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Geographic Education and Public Policy

An address by Harm de Blij before the NCGE Opening Session, Gardner Auditorium, Massachusetts State House, Wednesday, November 3, l999

This truly is a superb setting for the opening session of the century’s final annual meeting of the National Council for Geographic Education. Even briefly inhabiting the Massachusetts State House, this locus of power and influence, is enough to evoke images of authority. Standing here I am tempted to declare that I accept the nomination for Governor of the State of Massachusetts - and my first proclamation is that a full curriculum in Geography will henceforth be taught at all schools, colleges, and universities, public and private, in the State.

If I may address myself for just a moment to those who are not teachers of Geography or professional Geographers, you will note that the motto of this 84th annual NCGE meeting is “Advancing the Geographic Revolution.” Over the past half century, the discipline of Geography has undergone a sweeping transformation, and during the past two decades that transformation has been propagated by a revolution in Geographic education. But neither the transformation nor the revolution is finished. The key question in Geography is where, and ever-newer research methods and technologies allow us to address and solve problems that were intractable just a generation ago. You would, I think, be amazed to see the work of medical geographers helping to mitigate the threat of epidemics, of political geographers solving boundary problems on land and at sea, of urban geographers modeling the recent dispersal and future restructuring of the American city. Geography’s penetrating insights are unmatched.

But Geography’s transformation happened at a time when Geographic education was in decline. Not only did several major universities close down their Geography Departments, but Geographic education at the elementary and high school levels also suffered severe setbacks. The “revolution” in our l999 motto refers to the twenty-year-long struggle, waged by the people gathered in this hall today, to bring Geography back where it matters most. Enormous progress has been made, but there is a long way to go.

It is still true, as has been the case for a very long time now, that ours remains one of the few countries of consequence in which it is possible for millions of students to go from kindergarten to graduate school without ever making contact with Geography. Those of us in higher education are all too well aware of the administrative and systemic consequences at college and university levels, where curricular decisions are often made by colleagues and administrators who are inadequately informed about Geography as a discipline. This perpetuates a major flaw in our national educational system and delays or negates its rectification in many universities where Geography ought to be a key component of the curriculum. Several of these universities are within a few miles of this meeting site. The ignominious list includes Harvard University, Wellesley College, Tufts University, and Boston College. From these institutions graduate a substantial number of the policy-making elite of this country.

Those of you teaching at the elementary through high school level will know the social cost of an education that does not include Geography. It deprives young students of an early awareness of spatial relationships. It denies them an early exposure to maps and their uses. It engenders a geographic illiteracy that lasts into adulthood. It delays, perhaps permanently, their appreciation of global natural environments and their impacts on human societies. It defers their comprehension of the planet’s natural resources and the need for their judicious use and conservation.

Of all this you are well aware, but I would like to speak briefly on the cost to the nation of our continuing inability to reach even a bare majority of our students. The same students who never encountered Geography in school or college now make public policy decisions that can - and have - set this country on courses that should not have been taken. In the absence of a Geographically informed general public, these policies were approved by elected representatives and executed without restraint. During the Vietnam War, it was a cadre of courageous journalists who informed the American public of the historical, cultural, political, and economic Geography of Indochina, who taught Americans about Southeast Asia what they had never learned at school. Their reportage stirred a national debate that should have occurred before, not after the war had taken an irreversible turn. Now it was too late, and the dispute turned violent, with incalculable consequences for the country’s cultural fabric. Those guilty of the most serious misjudgments displayed a Geographic illiteracy that betrayed their ignorance. I often wonder if the course of history might have been different had Robert McNamara taken a course in Regional or Human Geography in the Harvard Business School from which he graduated.

Indeed, Harvard University, from where come many of the public-policy makers of our time, should be ashamed of not having a Department of Geography. Evidence that such a Department is needed abounds, and not just from the days of the Vietnam War debacle. In an invited article in The Economist some months ago the Harvard economist Jeffery Sachs delivered himself of the unqualified proposition that landlocked countries have little or no chance of the kind of economic development achieved by coastal states (a conclusion that must have come as a surprise to the Swiss and the Austrians, among others). Dr. Sachs gave no evidence of being aware of the kind of spatial linkages taught in every introductory regional geography course in this country, and several subsequent letters to the editor, commenting on the Sachs article, alluded to this weakness. When it comes to history as taught at Harvard University, we have a glimpse from a book authored by emeritus professor David Landes titled The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (subtitled “Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor”), published in New York by Norton in l998. This book begins with an attack on Geography, and an oft-repeated, tired (and wrong) justification for the elimination of geography from the Harvard University curriculum. Environmental determinism of the Ellsworth Huntington era was discredited, and in any case geography was intellectually weak, had little theoretical basis, and was just “too easy.” This from a historian who proceeds, in this book, to revive the very environmental determinism to which he attributes Geography’s decline - and who provides no evidence at all of any awareness of the discipline’s revolutionary development over the past several decades. The book is exciting reading and it is full of factual detail, but it is troubling to think that Harvard University students took the course without being able to judge for themselves whether the geography that underpins it was accurate and current or not. Still another work that will interest geographers is The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order by the Harvard University political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (New York: Simon & Schuster, l996). The author argues that the spatial dimensions of conflict (he does not use this terminology) have progressed from clan and tribe to state and nation and are now poised to erupt along the “fault lines” of the world’s major civilizations. Readers of the geographic literature will discern something familiar in this flawed but challenging thesis: a l960s article by Donald Meinig in the Annals of the Associaton of American Geographers that substantially anticipates the fundamental notion. But I am told that the Annals cannot be found in the Harvard Library.

Imagine the public-policy makers headed for Washington from such a geographically-challenged environment to lead the country in this globalizing world! No wonder we have leaders who cannot refer accurately to countries, leaders, let alone significant geographic ideas that have stood the test of time. On that point, let us not forget Sir Halford Mackinder and his sparring partner, Nicholas Spykman. Mackinder foresaw the Soviet-Russian challenge for world power a century ago, basing his analysis on the resource content and locational assets of the Russian core area. Spykman was the first to refer to a Pacific Rim, forty years before the term gained currency in the scholarly and popular literature. And in the physical realm, I owe a personal debt to Alfred Wegener, the climatologist (and hence physical geographer) who proposed a hypothesis of continental drift that was a favorite topic of derision among scientists but which set the research agenda for our colleagues in Geology for the better part of the century. Our Chairman this evening asked if I needed a projector; when I said no, he said that was good because there is none here in the State House; then he asked whether I needed a map, and when I said that I could do without one as mine would be a geographically literate audience, he looked relieved. But there are times when I like to fondle a globe, and whenever Wegener comes to mind is such a time. Wegener’s old map of Pangaea, with the Gondwanan landmasses surrounding Africa, is not just of historical interest. It should hang on the wall of every stockbroker who deals in commodities. All you need is that reassembly to predict where new raw-material discoveries are likely to be made, or to explain why those already made were found where they were. Who says that some geographic trivia are not useful? Just conjure up a mental map of Gondwana and remember what country in Subsaharan Africa is the leading oil exporter, and which countries in South America, and what State in the contiguous United States. Then draw an imaginary line around them, because they share the same oilfield. So let us not be surprised when the next discoveries will be westward along the West African coast and eastward along the South American coast. Just by looking at that map again, we can predict which South American country is the leading diamond producer if we know the African one. I am reminded of another commonplace to us that seems to excite non-geographers. Giving a talk some years ago at a convention of bankers in some remote resort in Arizona I showed the Koppen-Geiger map of world climates, and explained in very general terms what the colors represent. The corporation’s president was so taken by this maps that he wanted it for his company’s annual report - it would be so useful, he said, in explaining to representatives posted overseas what they might experience in the way of climate and weather. He had, he said, never seen this map, or anything like it; of course he would have if he had taken an introductory geography course. Every textbook has a version of it - even my competition.

And so we approach the end of the century with a discipline in revolution, with robust theory to support it, and with some major and permanent contributions behind it. I am sure that you, as teachers, are often asked what you regard as the most important event to have happened during the past century and millennium. In fact I was asked just that question during the reception prior to this session. I submit that it may have been something that did not happen rather than something that did. During China’s Ming Dynasty, populous and prospering China sent out its first fleets to ply the waters of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The vessels were huge, seven to ten times as large as Columbus was to use more than a century later. Nothing to rival them was built again until the nineteenth century. The fleets reached East Africa and seemed set to round the Cape in the opposite direction from that to be followed by the Portuguese - when China’s ruler made a fateful decision. Problems at home, resulting from environmental causes and creating famines, required that overseas adventures cease. The Emperor decreed that the ships be burned and the technology destroyed, and henceforth no boat could be built larger than would be able to navigate the Grand Canal for the purpose of transporting grain. It was the end of China’s foreign campaigns, but imagine if the Ming rulers had decreed otherwise. We might all be speaking Chinese today. China was the leader in many spheres of human achievement, and even then had the population numbers to make the colonization of Africa and Europe conceivable. That fateful decision had almost unimaginable consequences.

Ladies and gentlemen, we can all identify public-policy decisions that should be informed by geography and are not, and we all worry about geographically-challenged representatives making decisions - whether on university curricula or on international relations. I remember a moment in my own experience as a geographer, in the l960s, when I had the good fortune to be teaching at Michigan State University. After the election of President Kennedy, Africa South of the Sahara acquired a far higher priority in Washington than it had ever had. President Kennedy himself made clear his support for the decolonization of Africa, then advancing rapidly, but he also strengthened the Africa desk at the State Department and appointed a Secretary of State for African Affairs, G. Mennen Williams, who was from Michigan. He invited a number of young academics to Washington from time to time to discuss African affairs, and it was exciting to be a part of that. Discussions focused on such topics as the Volta River and Aswan High Dams, on the role of the Peace Corps, on the situation in South Africa. But one day our meeting was the morning after President Kennedy had come on television to deliver his chalk-talk, when he described to the nation the discovery of the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was a talk that could only be seen with much foreboding, as it seemed that it was designed to create a justification for deeper involvement in post-French Southeast Asia. The next day, although we were supposed to discuss Africa, talk inevitably turned to the President’s talk. The Ho Chi Minh Trail led from North Vietnam into Laos, and from Laos into South Vietnam, and obviously an urgent aim would be to stall the traffic in arms it carried. But as the discussion proceeded, with African, not Southeast Asian, maps on the walls, I realized that those present were not al all clear about the geopolitical layout of the realm in question. So I stopped the discussion and asked - “Can anyone define the six countries that border Laos?” And no one was able to do it. Consider this - the question did not refer to the Montagnards and the plains people, the delta dwellers and those in the central highlands, Hanoi and Saigon: it simply referred to the mosaic of states with which we were about to increase our involvement. How much, I wondered, would those in Washington leading this involvement know about the geography of Southeast Asia? And how much did the American public know - enough to send a message to their representatives?

We all know how this tragedy ended, and I remain convinced that a geographically informed polity is crucial to inhibiting governmental misadventures of this kind. Whether we like it or not, the United States as the end-of-the-century’s sole superpower is involved from Kosovo to Korea and from Taiwan to Timbuktu, and geographic knowledge translates into the effective use of the power this nation wields.

If I may I would like to share three concerns with you in this connection; I have many more, but the following are in my view critical and suffer from misguided public policy:

1. Africa.

As you all know, Africa’s place on the long list of foreign-policy concerns dropped almost immediately following the end of the Kennedy administration, and President Clinton’s quick trip last year (reminiscent of those Renaissance-Weekend excursions) did little to change this. Promises were made, hopes were raised, but in truth very little happened, and the House of Representatives still is debating related issues - notably how to give African producers better opportunities on US markets. But it is time for the United States to put Africa back near the top as an urgent priority. In the first place, Africa is one of the cultural sources of the US nation, with a large minority of African descent. Secondly, Africa - Professor Huntington’s analysis notwithstanding - does not rank among those world civilizations vying for global power in the next century; the African geographic realm is without a core and without ideological or religious integration. Far from a competitor for gloal influence, Africa risks becoming - yet again - a battleground for foreign influences. Conflict rages along large segments of the Islamic Front that stretches from Senegal to Somalia, and in Nigeria the first State in the Federation has just proclaimed the institution of Islamic (Sharia) law. The potential Afghanization or Algerianization of African countries in the Sudanic zone, and the penetration of Wahhabism in East Africa, should be matters of great concern. Directly related to this is the need for greater economic opportunity for African producers, who in the worst of the global periphery are powerless to affect decisions made in the cities of the global core. And the United States should pay its United Nations bills and then spearhead a massive effort to enlarge WHO programs to improve the health of African children. It is a matter of self-interest for us to do so, to help those in the incubator of equatorial and tropical diseases that now (and will soon) have global reach.

2. Global Environmental Change

When Alfred Wegener proposed his hypothesis of continental drift, the great majority of scientists (notably here in the United States) rejected the notion, even after the appearance of his book The Origin of Continents and Oceans. Today, the great majority of scientists reject the idea that the observed global warming is the product of a natural cycle, and prefer to assume (for an assumption it remains) that the slight increase in temperatures in some areas of the planet are human-induced. A number of geographers are among those who do not share this view. Certainly the longer-term perspective casts doubt on the human-induced global-warming notion. A recent column in the NewScientist states that “by eliminating automobile emissions, we can banish global warming forever.” In the New York Times some weeks ago an op-ed piece states that “there is no evidence of s cycle of warming in the fossil record, or in the core samples taken from the ocean depths, or in the growth rings of trees, or in the ice cores drawn from the spinning axis of the world, that matches the (warming) pattern of the last century …” The author of this comment, who obviously is unaware of the global warming that accompanied the onset of the Holocene (not to mention other warming episodes in planetary history) teaches history at a university I will refrain from identifying; he produced a book for which this op-ed piece turned out to be an advance advertisement sanctioned by the editors.

In fact the medium-range evidence suggests that the planet is in situation similar to that which prevailed at the end of the Medieval Optimum, the long warming phase that extended across the gestation of the Roman and Han Empires on two sides of the Eurasian landmass. By the end of the tenth century AD the Earth’s habitable space was at its greatest latitudinal extent for Holocene times; Iceland produced grains, the agricultural frontier lay across Scandinavia, the vines planted by the Romans in Britain produced copiously (at one time the British actually exported wine to France!) and while Leif Ericsson was plying North Atlantic waters, the Polynesian Maori extended their frontier, for the first time, into New Zealand.

In the book The Little Ice Age (l988) author Jean Grove describes what happened when the beneficent times came to an end. The agricultural frontier in northwestern Europe was pushed southward some 200 miles. The wine industry in Britain was extinguished in less than two generations. Storms, floods, droughts, and other extremes afflicted long-stable agricultural and urban-coastal zones. Temperatures fluctuated strongly as decades of warming would be followed by severe cooling. The meticulous records of winegrowers, analyzed by the French scientist Ladurie, reveal how short many summers became, and how bitter the winters.

As in the case of the Medieval Optimum, the current warming phase (perhaps we should call it the Industrial Optimum) has been interrupted by cooling. From approximately l940 to l970, global temperatures declined, then to recover to the warming trend now cited to represent human-induced global warming. That cooling period, during the height of the pollution-belching Industrial Revolution, is one strong piece of evidence that the temperature changes we are experiencing are part of a natural cycle, not dominantly a human-induced one. Which leads to two conclusions: first, the greater threat may lie in nature, not in human activity, making the challenge far more difficult; and second, there is insufficient certainty to justify the kind of public-policy making embodied by the Kyoto Conference on Global Warming. As Warwick J. McKibbin and Peter J. Wilcoxen argue in the Chronicle of Higher Education in July, l999, “the many uncertainties about global warming have polarized the public debate. The result has been terrible public policy.”

One reason for this relates to the level of geographic education of the American public. How just one course in fundamental physical geography, taken by every student at some level during his or her education, would inform the debate - and serve as an antidote to the prevailing malady!

Having said this, I do not for a moment want to suggest that we have less to fear from the massive pollution of the atmosphere that continues unabated. There are powerful reasons to control damaging emissions, and public policy should focus on this problem - but for its own sake. To assume that, by somehow reducing atmospheric pollution, even by trading pollution “permits” under the Kyoto Protocol, we will stave off global warming (and the climatic instability we seem already to be confronting as the Industrial Optimum nears a close) is to delude the public.

3. China.

Whether we like it or not, the United States is the world’s sole superpower as we enter the twenty-first century, but the multipolar world envisaged by Samuel Huntington and others is not likely to be far in the future. It is of course possible that a true multipolar world will emerge - in some ways the world at the end of the twentieth century bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the end of the nineteenth, when one global superpower saw its challengers arise - but the most likely scenario seems to be the reformation of a bipolar world, in which the United States and China are the key poles.

Some of my colleagues in political geography suggest that China may not be able to sustain its authoritarian form of government, and that internal instability and breakdown will accompany the transition ahead. And indeed, China (not Soviet Russia) is the last of the great empires, and we all know what happened to the others. Whatever the outcome of China’s transition (and it may be a very long time away), China will be a formidable force on the Pacific Rim. Virtually landlocked Russia, still-divided Europe, and slowly emerging India are not likely to match these two powers in the decades ahead. And the United States has a major and continuing presence in the western Pacific - a presence that cannot be abrogated but which portends times of tension with the East Asian giant.

Which brings me to the role of geographic education in foreign policy. I know that there are a number of China specialists in this room tonight, and I’ll wager that they have had experiences similar to mine in China: I have been in China every year since l98l, except only l990 (for obvious reasons). Every time I visit, I am impressed by the level of knowledge of colleagues I meet, audiences I speak to - about the United States, about world affairs, about the English language. There is a thirst for knowledge and an intense pursuit of information that is at times stunning. Thousands of Chinese faculty are now working at foreign universities (dozens in U.S. Geography Departments) and tens of thousands of students cycle out of, and back into, the country. Yes, we have business links and a small army of entrepreneurs in China, but I wonder if the American public knows much more about China today than it did about Southeast Asia in the l960s.

In the decades ahead it is unlikely that the U.S. and Chinese governments will be able to prevent conflicts of interest; there are too many potentials, from Taiwan and North Korea, Tibet and the Spratly Islands, to Japan and the South China Sea, not to mention espionage issues and arms control. It is not impossible that the United States and China will find themselves in a Cold-War relationship - and then the key to overcoming the risks will be our mutual understanding. During the twentieth-century Cold War, the two camps had a certain level of mutual knowledge and understanding, which is what made it possible to overcome the Cuban Missile Crisis and both Vietnam and Afghanistan (U.S. foreign policy during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan may have been the biggest blunder of the twentieth century, but it did not risk a Third World War). This was essentially an intra-cultural Cold War during which the public and its representatives on both sides kept connected. American audiences listened to Prokofieff and Shostakovitch, and Russians read Hemingway and Steinbeck, even while the Cold-War struggle continued. But now, for the first time in history, there is the prospect of an inter-cultural Cold War, with the potential for misunderstanding far, far greater.

This is one powerful reason why China should be the focus of as much of the geographic education we offer as possible. Geographic education - of policymakers and public alike - may be the key to peace in the coming decades as the geopolitical map changes in ways we cannot yet foresee. As far as I am concerned, the peace of the future will depend on the broadening base of geographic education in this country, the vehicle for the kind of understanding we must have of the world if we are to lead in this world. You are the driver of this vehicle, and I fervently hope that the revolution we celebrate with this meeting will only gain momentum.

Published exclusively at Geography at About.com by special arrangement with Dr. de Blij.

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