It is clear that geography must be a part of any serious effort to meet the educational challenges implicit in these questions. Students need to be exposed to ideas and perspectives that cut across the physical-human divide, that consider how developments in one place influence those in other places, that focus attention on the ways in which local circumstances affect understandings and activities, and that foster an appreciation for the diversity of peoples and landscapes that comprise the Earth's surface. Recent outcries over the lack of geography in school curricula (see Chapter 1) reflect a growing recognition that an understanding of such matters is essential if the students of today are to function effectively in the world of tomorrow.
In response to demands for more and better instruction in geography, a set of voluntary national standards for geography education at the kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) levels has been developed by a coalition of geographers and other educators (Geography Education Standards Project, 1994). In addition, geography alliances have been formed by the National Geographic Society in all 50 states to help school teachers become more effective geography instructors. The College Board is also adding a course and examination in geography to its Advanced Placement Program. These initiatives reflect an understanding that geography is not a luxury in a school curriculum. Instead, it is a necessary component of any reform initiative aimed at preparing students for the challenges of the twenty-first century.
In 1989 the Bush administration convened an education summit of the nation's governors at which they agreed that new goals needed to be established for American education. They determined that teaching and learning at the K-12 level should focus on a limited number of specific core subjects, including geography. Ultimately, national education goals were incorporated into legislation—the Educate America Act, which became public law in 1994. The act specifically included geography as a core subject, not only because geographic literacy was deemed to be important but also because geography instruction would be a vehicle for increasing classroom attention to contemporary issues and for integrating the content and skills associated with other core subjects.
Given the fundamental geographic underpinnings of so many critical issues facing society today, there is a clear need for an assessment of the role of geography in contemporary America. To provide such an assessment, this report turns first to a consideration of the discipline's perspectives and techniques (Chapters 3 and 4). This is followed by an examination of the relevance of the discipline in the scientific and policy making arenas (Chapters 5 and 6). The report then concludes with a discussion of the challenges facing the discipline (Chapter 7) and the adjustments that are needed (Chapter 8) if geography is to respond to the demands being placed on it by scientists, policy makers, educators, and the private sector.