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Geography in the United States

The History of Modern Geography in the United States


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Geography in the United States can trace its roots to the development of geography in Europe. European geography was “founded” in 1820 when Carl Ritter became the first chair of geography at the University of Berlin. Over the following few decades, geography spread across Europe and then across the Atlantic Ocean to North America through American scholars who studied at European universities.

In 1851, the exploration of uncharted areas of the world was of great interest to many. The American Geographical Society was founded that year in New York City as a organization devoted to exploration. Beyond exploration, there wasn’t much geography within the society.

William Morris Davis, known as the “father of American geography ,” was born in 1850. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Harvard by 1870 and in 1878, was hired as a geology instructor at that institution. Davis was truly a physical geographer.

A second society of exploration was founded in 1888 in Washington D.C., the National Geographic Society. The first president of the Society was lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard who valued his non-geographic background, “By my election you notify the public that the membership of our Society will not be confined to professional geographers, but will include that large number who, like myself, desire to promote special researches by others, and to diffuse the knowledge so gained, among men, so that we may all know more of the world upon which we live.”

Obviously, the National Geographic Society wasn’t about academic geography, either. However, that same year (1888) the first issue of National Geographic was published, sharing the wonders of the planet and its people with American readers.

The University of Chicago was the first institution of higher education in the United States to create a department of geography. Their geography program began in 1903 and blossomed into a major department that created a plethora of doctorates in geography. Unfortunately, the geography department at the University of Chicago is not as robust as it was during their heyday.

Likewise, for many years, Harvard University was a leader in geographic scholarship but the geography program vanished there in 1948. Today, all that exists at Harvard is the Harvard Geographic Society, whose motto is, “It's the only place you'll find geography at Harvard.” It is an unfortunate loss for the discipline to not have a department of geography at the nation’s foremost educational institution.

Key centers for geographic education in the United States today include Clark University in Massachusetts, the University of California at Berkeley, Pennsylvania State University, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Washington, Texas State University, and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Here is one ranking of the top twenty geography doctoral programs in the United States.

The need for an academic society devoted to the study of geography as a discipline was evident at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1904, William Morris Davis and others who considered themselves academic geographers got together in Philadelphia to form the Association of American Geographers (AAG). Davis served as the initial president of the AAG and was reelected for two more terms.

Today, the Association of American Geographers is the foremost academic organization of geographers in the United States. The AAG publishes two professional journals, Annals of the Association of American Geographers and The Professional Geographer. The AAG has a membership of more than 7,500 members worldwide. The members of the AAG are primarily academic geographers teaching and researching at colleges and universities throughout the United States. AAG members can select from any of 63 specialty groups that represent the diverse nature of the discipline, from Bible Geography to Sexuality and Space.

In more modern times, the National Geographic Society has been a major supporter of geographic education in K-12 schools. They helped to develop the National Geography Standards, found and support the National Geographic Bee, and fund geographic education with millions of dollars over the past few decades.

The National Council for Geographic Education, an organization devoted to geographic education in elementary and secondary education, was founded in 1915 to spread geographic knowledge to the youngest students across the country. They publish a journal devoted to K-12 geographic education.

Published in 2004, the book, Geography in America at the Dawn of the 21st Century seeks to summarize the state of academic geography research in all of the multitude of subdisciplines. It is an impressive 848 pages but at its high price, remains inaccessible to most who want to understand the discipline better.

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