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Geographic Education Revival

Geographic Illiteracy Slowly Fading in the United States

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Updated March 28, 2006
Decades ago, the concept of "social studies" was created, lumping geography, history, and civics courses into one portion of the curriculum. Some social studies teachers earned their teaching credential without any college coursework in geography. A lack of a geographic focus in the curriculum and geographic training reflected students' knowledge of the world around them.

In a December 1989 National Geographic article by Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the President of the National Geographic Society, focused on the lack of geographic knowledge by Americans. The Gallup organization had been hired by the Society to determine how much (or little) Americans knew about locating places when compared to citizens of nine other countries.

Respondents were asked to match numbers on a world map with a list of sixteen places. Among 18-24 year olds world-wide, on average, Americans were least able to provide correct answers. They averaged 6.9 correct out of 16. In fact, only 86% of Americans could identify the location of the United States on a map. Of the sixteen places, Americans had the most difficult time locating the Persian Gulf (only 25% were accurate). This survey, along with many other contemporary ones showed that the "social studies" curriculum utilized in schools in the United States for some time had failed.

In 1994 the eighteen National Geography Standards were developed to provide educators some goals for teachers and students to attain in terms of their geographic knowledge. The 272 page book, Geography for Life, elaborates upon the eighteen standards which are divided into six "essential elements."

The National Geographic Society has put millions of dollars towards educating students and teachers about geography. They began the National Geographic Bee in which over five million students in grades 4 through 8 from over 18,000 schools compete for a $25,000 scholarship. The finals for the annual event are held at the National Geographic Society's headquarters in Washington D.C. and are hosted by Alex Trebek, of the television show Jeopardy!

The annual Geography Awareness Week (held in November) puts packets of information into the hands of thousands of teachers. The packets include a teachers manual, ideas of activities, and colorful posters to help provide that extra boost for geography each year.

Associations of geography teachers known as Geographic Alliances have been established in all fifty states which have helped to provide geographic education to over 10,000 teachers and to work to revive geography in the schools as a required subject. The alliances support training seminars and field work for teachers to expand their geographic knowledge.

In 1994 the discipline of geography received a real shot in the arm when it was included as a core subject of the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act" and became one of the subjects tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Another big boost for geography occurred in the 2000-2001 school year when the College Board released the Advanced Placement test in Human Geography that year. Students often earn college units upon successful completion of the AP test. With this test, there are now many (and growing) AP-level high school classes offered in geography, increasing the need for geographically educated instructors. Those who take AP Human Geography have an understanding of the discipline and enter universities ready to study geography. In addition, several states now require a high school geography course as an admission requirement for their universities.

The Association of American Geographers' former director of educational affairs, Osa Brand, informed me that universities are even seeing a handful of incoming freshmen declaring their major of geography where no one declared a few years ago. The future of geography could be very bright indeed!

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