Rediscovering Geography: Conclusions and Recommendations
The preceding chapters have offered a number of observations about, challenges to, and strategies for realizing geography's potential to contribute to scientific understanding and societal problem solving in the United States. In this final chapter the committee summarizes its conclusions and recommendations on steps to improve geographic understanding, improve geographic literacy, strengthen geographic institutions, and take individual and collective responsibility for strengthening the discipline.
Improving Geographic Understanding
Clearly, geography has too few answers to the questions being posed to it by society, although its potential to answer those questions is considerable. At the same time, geography is being asked too few questions by the other sciences. On the one hand, the demands of society are too large for the current capabilities of the discipline; on the other hand, the demands from other scientific disciplines are too small. Because geography's ability to respond to society's needs depends considerably on its strength as a science, and its strength as a science depends considerably on its support from the family of sciences, this contradiction is a matter of serious concern to the committee.
Given society's enhanced interest in geography as a subject, it is essential to improve the knowledge base of geography as a discipline related to critical issues for science and society, to increase the appreciation and use of geographic perspectives in science and society at large, and to treat geographic learning as
a challenge to science as well as to practice. Based on the foundation laid in Chapters 1 through 7, the committee concludes that responses by the discipline and by its external constituencies are needed to:
Improve geographic analysis in a new era of data and analytical tool availability, related to broader needs of science. Geography has made remarkable advances in its analytical capabilities during the last generation, but it faces significant challenges in responding to the emergence of new data types and analytical needs. For instance, certain types of georeferenced data (e.g., census tract data) are now available in such great and rapidly expanding quantities that they threaten to swamp thoughtful analysis, especially by untrained users. Moreover, the availability of large quantities of data tends to mask a broader underlying problem: namely, that data availability is not always well matched to data needs. Improved capabilities for data collection and analysis should therefore be high on the discipline's research agenda.
Geographers must also improve the practice of relating the ''front end" of geographic analysis—conceptualization and data selection/sampling design—with "back-end" modeling and analysis. Without thoughtful and intellectually robust linkages between these two elements of the research enterprise, geographic analysis will be inherently incomplete. At least as important, the capacity of geographic analysis to address issues of complex systems and nonlinear dynamics needs to be improved in order to fulfill geography's potential to contribute to the body of science. The improvement of capabilities for data collection and analysis should therefore be high on the discipline's research agenda.
In addition, it is important to recognize the value of utilizing a variety of methodologies in seeking better understandings of the world, combining geography's characteristic appreciation of diversity with its recognition that there is no single "foolproof method" for producing knowledge.
A particular challenge is that of analyzing and modeling relationships among natural science and human science phenomena and processes, which are so often separated by boundaries of epistemology, professional specialization, data categories, and units of measurement. Besides the technical challenges, such as relating economic and ecological indicators, this is also a challenge to individual scientists to transcend conventional boundaries for understandings of other kinds of processes and linkages.
- Develop integrative, interdisciplinary, relatively large geographic research initiatives in response to priorities of science and society. If geography is to increase its contributions to science and society, it must learn to think more broadly and to respond to science agendas set beyond the confines of the discipline. When this course has been followed, the utilization of geography's perspectives and knowledge base has increased immeasurably. The National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, for example, has reinforced geography's core role in a mode of analysis and techniques that are not only at the forefront of
- various national and international agency agendas (e.g., National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Census Bureau) but that are also being adopted throughout many natural and social sciences.
Geography as a discipline should devote more attention to the development of larger, integrative, interdisciplinary research projects, particularly projects that would benefit from the collaboration of physical and human geographers or those who develop methods of spatial representation and those who apply those methods, both within the discipline and beyond; and more of this research should be directed at high priority issues for society and science. An example of a research issue suited to both of these emphases is global change, broadly defined (see Chapter 7). In this and other cases, geography's ability to contribute on the basis of sound scientific research will often depend on the availability of valid longitudinal information covering the diverse topics incorporated in the discipline's perspectives.
- Increase the use of geographic perspectives to provide scientific insights that may not be achieved in other ways. Geography's spatial approaches (see Chapter 3) increasingly influence research in many fields beyond geography. In addition to geography's contributions to subject-matter knowledge as such, its way of thinking and its skills in understanding visual representation should also be utilized more often throughout science to improve scientific understanding. Individual geographers should therefore become more engaged in interdisciplinary research activities that bring such geographic perspectives and tools to bear on important scientific and societal questions.
- Increase linkages between geographic research and geographic education, by emphasizing research on geographic learning. If geography is to be an effective contributor to improving the knowledge base in schools, and reach out to America's adult population, it needs to undertake research on how geographic learning takes place. Besides its general value for education, such research will help assure that geography's perspectives and skills are used by colleagues in other sciences, who often are engaged in geographic learning themselves. Research attention also is needed to address what geographic literacy means and how it can be facilitated. The results of such research will strengthen decision making related to education standards, curriculum and materials design, and assessment.
Improving Geographic Literacy
Geography is being asked by the nation to help improve the geographic literacy of the U.S. population: knowledge of the world and flows within it, characteristics and dynamics of places, relations between local and global changes, relationships between people and their environment, and uses of geographic data and capabilities for data display and analysis. To respond effectively, the committee concludes that steps are needed to:
- Implement programs to support and assure the quality of the science content in kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) geography education. Although the committee did not evaluate the current state of geography education in America's schools, it shares the widespread impression that this education is not up to world standards (e.g., see Chapter 1). If geography education is to receive substantially more attention in the nation's schools, it is important for geography as a discipline to assure that the educational content is sound and current. This calls for initiatives to improve both teacher training and educational materials, with specific attention to student performance and curriculum.
- Foster conceptually sound general education courses in geography as part of a liberal arts college education. Beyond the K-12 level of education, geography should be contributing more effectively to the training of students at the college level, whether or not they are geography majors. Courses in geography should emphasize the discipline's perspectives and skills as well as its subject matter. An American student with a liberal arts higher education, whether from a university or a technical/community college, should be geographically competent—knowledgeable about the world and able to use geography's perspectives and skills in the workplace and in life.
- Develop programs that bring geographic perspectives to bear more effectively on business, government, and other organizations at national to community levels. Clearly, the United States cannot wait a generation—until geographically literate students move into positions of responsibility—to utilize geography to improve decision making and social well-being. Improvements are needed now. To this end, improved linkages are required between geography's professional practitioners and prospective users of its perspectives in business, government, and other organizations at all scales.
- Use existing institutional bases to expand access by the U.S. population to geography. The effective use of geography's perspectives by decision makers in this democratic society will depend substantially on a higher level of geographic literacy throughout the country's population. This challenge involves at least two elements: getting the information out and getting people to use it. For geography as a research discipline, the main responsibility is getting the science right, in terms of substantive content and interactive communication. But geographic ignorance in the United States probably cannot be reduced significantly without strong collaboration among a variety of concerned parties, including geography's organizations, government at several levels, business, nongovernmental interest groups, and the information media. In particular, progress is likely to depend on whether or not the nation's private sector sees geographic literacy as a business opportunity. Strong linkages are needed between professional geography and the business firms that might undertake such an effort, in order to reduce the costs to business of getting geographic information and insights into the marketplace rapidly and to assure that the products and services are sound as well as attractive.
Strengthening Geographic Institutions
To meet its scientific and societal responsibilities, as outlined in this report, geography as a discipline needs to change, with the support and encouragement of its institutional patrons. The most fundamental problem is one of magnitude: geography's small size relative to demands for its services, broadly defined. But the discipline needs to address itself to problems of substance as well, related both to its traditions and to new directions in response to changing conditions. To these ends, the committee concludes that initiatives are needed to:
- Rediscover traditional strengths of geography. Much of the recent external interest in geography has been focused on disciplinary traditions that are considered by many geographers to be more characteristic of the past than the future: integrative knowledge, regional knowledge, and field discovery. Geography as a discipline needs to reexamine these traditional strengths, reconsider their intellectual and societal relevance, and expand the attention devoted to them in research and teaching.
- Discover and pursue new directions for geography. As geography rediscovers its traditions, it also needs to focus on new directions that are essential if the discipline is to remain relevant into the next generation. Directions needing increased emphasis include connections with critical issues for society, involvement in intellectual challenges to science at large (e.g., analyzing and understanding complex dynamics), and the pursuit of opportunities for interactive learning as a challenge for both research and teaching. Several of these directions were addressed earlier in connection with programs to bring geographic perspectives to bear in business, government, and other institutions.
- Expand geography's resources and reach, reconciling supply and demand. All of the conclusions listed above ask that geography do more in the future than in the past. The most profound problem, and in many ways the most urgent, is that geography is being asked to increase its contributions to science and society at a rate unprecedented in the discipline's history in the United States, yet it remains a small academic discipline situated in educational institutions with very limited capacities for expansion. In terms of geography's reach, it is being asked to strengthen K-12 education and improve the geographic literacy of the general population and major decision making institutions. In addition, its perspectives and skills have new relevance for many multidisciplinary research goals and for science in general, and the discipline needs to match expanded educational roles with expanded research roles in order to maintain a healthy balance as a science. But its human and financial resources in universities, departments, and external sources of research funding are painfully limited—and already strained nearly to the limit in many cases. One key to resolving this mismatch between reach and resources is governmental support, especially as a catalyst for change in the near term (support that should not be equated simply
- with more money). In the longer term, however, the key may be to attract other external sources of support, including foundations and the private sector.
Progress in these regards is likely to depend as much on initiatives arising from within the discipline than on external initiatives. Simply stated, geography needs to do a better job of identifying users of its knowledge and techniques—and in estimating demand levels, demand trends, supply priorities, and supply strategies—in order to develop strategies to increase its external resource support. Considering the critical roles of external demands and resources in shaping such a prospect, however, this vision cannot be developed by geography in isolation. As indicated in Chapter 1, geography is a means to social ends, not an end in itself; and its plan for expanding its resource base must be consistent with those ends and the societal resources allocated to reach them.
An example of a specific issue is the growing dependence of effective geographic research and teaching on capital equipment. Except for physical geography and cartography, geography departments in colleges and universities have generally not needed significant equipment budgets in the past. At least partly as a result, the impacts of the technological revolution described in Chapters 4 and 7 have been virtually impossible to accommodate within current institutional concepts of departmental budgeting. In addition, the shorter effective lifetime of higher-technology equipment calls for budgets for regular replacement as well as for base-level capital stock.
- Alter faculty reward structures in universities, colleges, and geography departments. Reward structures need to recognize the importance of long-term, collaborative research; geographic education, including scholarly contributions to geographic learning; contributions to societal problem solving; and interdisciplinary interaction, including working and publishing with colleagues in other disciplines.1
Taking Individual and Collective Responsibility for Strengthening the Discipline
Finally, geographers need to recognize that they also have responsibilities to their discipline, to other sciences, and to society. Geography's new relevance does not just pose challenges to external bodies and larger institutional settings; it calls for a response by individuals and groups of geographers on their own volition, both as professionals and citizens. In particular, the committee suggests that geographers, their organizations, and their departments should:
- Recognize education and service as professional responsibilities. In line with general trends in the world of higher education, geographers need to respond
See Association of American Geographers. 1994. Reconsidering Faculty Roles and Rewards: Washington, D.C.
- to societal needs for quality education and practice as professionally as they respond to opportunities for research, showing sensitivity to societal need as well as self-directed curiosity.
- Enhance diversity in geography's perspectives, participants, and audiences. Geographers and their organizations need to make themselves fully aware of trends in the diversity of student and professional populations and trends in the diversity of approaches to seeking understanding. As an expression of the nature of geography, as well as morality and humanity, they must appreciate diversity, value it, support it in their institutional environments, and seek it in their own learning. Furthermore, geographers need to endeavor to address research issues of relevance to a wider range of user communities, including disadvantaged groups.
Promote breadth and depth of learning, emphasizing the common core of learning that provides coherence to the discipline. Geography faculty need to take collective responsibility for identifying and infusing into undergraduate and graduate programs the core of conceptual and methodological approaches that provide coherence to the discipline. They need to ensure that undergraduate and graduate students are solidly grounded in the fundamentals of geographic learning, while at the same time affording graduate students opportunities for in-depth training at the frontiers of knowledge in selected subspecialties.
To this end, faculty members need to make more of an effort to collaborate across subspecialties, especially between human and physical subspecialties, between these subspecialties and those emphasizing spatial representation, and across institutions. Faculty need to ensure that their undergraduate and graduate students are exposed to the range of geographic topics, research traditions, and methodologies that define the core of the discipline. At the undergraduate level, faculty members need to provide exposure to the various subspecialties in a way that reinforces the ideal of a liberal education and at the same time prepares students for advanced training. Such exposure might come, for example, through courses and seminars led by teams of physical and human geographers that emphasize the connectivity among subspecialties. At the same time, faculty members must provide opportunities for graduate students to obtain depth of learning in selected subdisciplines. Such opportunities might come through pre- and postdoctoral training opportunities, collaborations with faculty members in other departments, and extracurricular activities such as summer institutes.
- Promote and participate in professional interactions with other sciences. As participants in a larger intellectual enterprise and as individual representatives of geography in an era of reaching out more actively beyond disciplinary boundaries, geographers need to seek interactions with other scientists, not only through multidisciplinary programs and research projects but through a wider range of discourse. This process might, for instance, include more active participation in state academies of science and such national organizations as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as catalyzing discussions of cross-cutting scientific issues with colleagues in one's own institution.
- Recognize responsibilities to local partners in conducting field research, especially in foreign areas. Field research in geography, which needs to receive increased emphasis in the years ahead, carries with it a number of obligations. Besides care in the science, such as sampling and inference, geographers need to recognize that local expertise is usually an essential part of thoughtful field research and that the benefits they draw from that enterprise often call for something of value to be returned. For example, research results of local or regional interest might be reported to diverse local audiences for their benefit, and/or contributions might be made to building local capacities for doing such research. As a general rule, U.S. geographers conducting research throughout the world need to work in collaboration with local counterparts.
Based on these conclusions, the committee offers a number of recommendations addressed to the external audience of this report. Each recommendation addresses the question of who needs to take action, and the final recommendation addresses the implementation process itself. Professional geographers should also examine the conclusions on "taking individual and collective responsibility for strengthening the discipline" of geography in order to identify additional actions that could strengthen the discipline from within.
To improve geographic understanding:
- Increased research attention should be given to certain core methodological and conceptual issues in geography that are especially relevant to society's concerns. Key issues include complex systems and nonlinear dynamics, relationships between physical and human geography, multiscale analysis, comparative case-study analysis, and visual representation. Implementation responsibility lies with those institutions that fund research in geography and related fields, along with universities, professional societies, and other institutions that promote the generation of research ideas and proposals (as well as geographers themselves).
- More emphasis should be placed on priority-driven, cross-cutting projects. A larger portion of geographic research support should be allocated to multiple-investigator, multidisciplinary projects that address scientific and societal priorities such as global change, urbanization, conflict resolution, and the dynamics of complex systems, with implementation by the same institutions as in the previous recommendation. Geography's organizations should be actively involved as catalysts for project and group development, especially involving more than one institution, and to assure that large research groups are accessible to, and are in communication with, the larger research, educational, and other user communities.
- Increased emphasis should be given to research that improves our understanding of geographic literacy, learning, and problem solving and the roles of geographic information in education and decision making, including interactive learning strategies and spatial decision support systems. This recommendation calls for a new collaboration between research support institutions such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and parties directly involved in teaching, learning, and other applications of geographical knowledge and tools. Geography's organizations—the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the American Geographical Society, the National Council for Geographic Education, and the National Geographic Society—should take the lead in fostering this collaboration and proposing strategies to enhance it.
To improve geographic literacy:
- Geography education standards and other guidelines for improved geography education in schools should be examined to identify subjects where geography's current knowledge base needs strengthening. Examples where strengthening is needed are likely to include such traditional strengths of geography as the pursuit of scientific synthesis through integration in place, addressing issues of relevance to the diversity of social and economic groups that constitute U.S. society, approaches to relating direct field observation to modern information technologies, and foreign field research. The responsibility for identifying critical gaps lies with geography's organizations.
- A significant national program should be established to improve the geographic competence of the U.S. general population, as well as leaders in business, government, and nongovernmental interest groups at all levels. A major multiyear effort is needed to assure that the knowledge, perspectives, and skills of geography as a subject are utilized effectively in meeting such national needs as competitiveness in the global economy and sustainable democratic responses to issues and choices in government, including foreign policy, environmental policy, and information infrastructure policy. This effort should be established through cooperation between the U.S. federal government, the NGS, and other geography organizations.
- Linkages should be strengthened between academic geography and users of its research. Geography's organizations should increase their interactions with private sector firms and associations, government agencies, educational institutions, nongovernmental interest groups, and appropriate funding organizations to examine ways to improve the effectiveness of information and technology transfer, to increase personal and professional linkages, and thereby to improve business and government and community decision making.
To strengthen geographic institutions:
- A high priority should be placed on increasing professional interactions between geographers and colleagues in other sciences. Geographers
- themselves bear a large part of the responsibility for this collaboration; but research support institutions and other institutions, such as NSF, the National Research Council (NRC), and the Social Science Research Council, which appoint groups to address issues where geographic perspectives and expertise are relevant, should also contribute to the implementation of this recommendation. The AAG is well suited to lead this effort.
- A specific effort should be made to identify and address disparities between growing demands on geography as a subject and the current capabilities of geography to respond as a scientific discipline. Specific recommendations concerning funding increases go well beyond the knowledge of committee members about scientific issues, but this issue urgently needs attention. Moreover, it is an issue that cannot be adequately addressed without the participation of a wide variety of institutions and constituencies, including government agencies, private foundations, school boards, institutions of higher learning with existing geography programs, and institutions that lack those programs. The committee recommends that geography's organizations, universities, the NRC, the NSF, and other appropriate agencies join together to produce a careful assessment of the resource constraint issue as well as the implications of different scenarios for resolving it.
- A specific effort should be made to identify and examine needs and opportunities for professional geography to focus its research and teaching on specific problems or niches, given limitations on the human and financial resources of the discipline. As a parallel effort to the previous recommendation, geography's organizations—particularly the AAG and the NGS—in collaboration with research support institutions such as NSF, should consider ways of using their scarce resources for maximum scientific and societal benefit by prioritizing, focusing on especially important needs and opportunities. This prioritization need not, and should not, be at the expense of individual investigator curiosity, but it should stimulate that curiosity by offering a vision of scientific accomplishment and impact related to especially promising directions for contributions by professional geographers.
- University and college administrators should alter reward structures for academic geographers to encourage, recognize, and reinforce certain categories of professional activity that are sometimes underrated. Such categories include long-term research; collaborative research; research directed toward societal problem solving, including policy research; research on geographic learning; geographic education as a field of scholarship, teaching, and professional service; and interdisciplinary interaction and communication. This recommendation should be implemented by university and college administrators, in collaboration with geography's organizations and with national and state associations concerned with reward systems and personnel policies for university faculty members.
To encourage implementation of these recommendations:
- Geographic and related organizations—especially the AAG, NGS, NSF, and NRC—should work together to develop and execute a plan to implement the recommendations in this report. The committee's recommendations to strengthen the discipline of geography and increase its contributions to science and society are wide-ranging in scope and will require a sustained and coordinated effort on the part of these organizations if they are to be realized. By working together, these organizations can leverage their individual efforts to develop a coherent implementation strategy, to monitor and evaluate the long-term effectiveness of the strategy, and to promote effective action by geographers, geographic and related organizations, and policy makers to achieve the long-term objectives of this report.
If these recommendations are implemented, both science and society will benefit, as will geography itself. Underlying nearly all of the recommendations is the conclusion that the demand for contributions from geography and the supply capacity, given current resources, are far out of line. Unless significant actions are taken, and taken quickly, either geography's contributions will be severely supply constrained (leading, for instance, to restricted enrollments in university courses and programs) or may decline in quality, as limited professional resources are stretched too thinly.
This conclusion is unavoidable, and it raises questions about the allocation of financial resources. If geography's rediscovered relevance has greater value within science and to society than is currently being realized, the investment of resources should be commensurate with this higher potential. But the issue is not merely one of funding. More importantly, a wide range of institutions and leaders—in government, business, research support, science, education, issue advocacy, the communications media, and geography itself as a discipline—need to raise their levels of awareness of geography's value to science and society and find more effective ways to publicize and utilize geography's perspectives, skills, and knowledge base. Looking toward the next century, realizing geography's potentials will require innovative new partnerships between provider and user, supported and supporter, one science and another, data gatherer and data analyst, and basic research and applications of knowledge.
If geography can be a pathfinder in developing and fulfilling such partnerships, it can survive a difficult transition from scarcity to abundance, and science at large will benefit from many of geography's successes as models for other disciplines. Such a future for the discipline is far from certain, and some of the changing conditions in the 1990s may make it more difficult, but it is worth a concerted effort by all of the interested parties and most of all by geography itself.