In the past decade, concerns about ''geographic illiteracy" have been the catalyst for a new focus on geography in the United States. Recent calls to "do something" about geographic illiteracy in this country can be traced to concerns about U.S. competitiveness in the global economy, combined with surveys that documented an astonishing degree of ignorance in the United States about the rest of the world. There is a growing public recognition that our national well-being is related to global markets and international political developments, to the continued prominence of environmental issues in social discourse, and to the emergence of computer and telecommunications technologies that emphasize graphic images such as maps and other spatial diagrams—all of which are associated in the public's mind with geography.
One result of this increased attention is a rediscovery of the importance of geography education in the United States. Geography is identified as a core subject for American schools, on a par with science and mathematics, in a series of recent policy statements and legislative proposals for national education reform. These include the report of the Charlottesville, Virginia, Summit convened by the 50 state governors and President Bush in October 1989; education reform plans of both the Bush and the Clinton administrations; and Goals 2000: The Educate America Act, passed by Congress in March 1994.
Geography has also been rediscovered by students. In the period 1986/1987 to 1993/1994, the number of undergraduate majors in geography grew by an estimated 47 percent nationwide and by 60 percent in Ph.D.-granting departments. Between 1985 and 1991, graduate program enrollments in geography grew by
33.4 percent, compared with a 15.3 percent increase in the social sciences and a 5.4 percent decrease in the environmental sciences.
This process of rediscovery has been mirrored in the research community as well. Research at the frontiers of fields as diverse as planning, economics, finance, social theory, epidemiology, anthropology, ecology, environmental history, conservation biology, and international relations has highlighted the importance of geographic perspectives. In particular, the importance of spatial perspectives—through such notions as place and scale—is being recognized in many fields, extending the influence of geography well beyond its relatively small group of professional practitioners.
The increased use of perspectives, knowledge, and techniques associated with a relatively small academic discipline raises several questions for the scientific community. Most directly, what is geography, and how does it connect with broad concerns of society and science? If geography is to play a more prominent role in education and decision making, do its scientific foundations need to be strengthened in order to support its expanded responsibilities?
With these questions in mind, the National Research Council established the Rediscovering Geography Committee to perform a comprehensive assessment of geography in the United States. The objectives of this assessment are:
- to identify critical issues and constraints for the discipline of geography,
- to clarify priorities for teaching and research,
- to link developments in geography as a science with national needs for geography education,
- to increase the appreciation of geography within the scientific community, and
- to communicate with the international scientific community about future directions of the discipline in the United States.
In addressing these issues, this report focuses on broad national and global themes in science and society, geography's potential as a perspective and a body of knowledge to help address these themes, and constraints on geography's capability as an academic discipline to respond. As examples, it draws mainly on experience from within geography as a discipline, although valuable geographic work is done outside the discipline as well, because the committee was comprised very largely of professional geographers. Where possible, however, the examples are selected to illustrate the interconnectedness between disciplines that characterizes so much geographic investigation and facilitates the flow of ideas, concepts, and techniques across disciplinary boundaries.
The Perspectives, Subject Matter, and Techniques of Geography
To most Americans, geography is about place names. Concerns about geographic ignorance usually focus on people's inability to locate cities, countries,
and rivers on a world map, and geographic instruction is often equated with conveying information about remote parts of the world. From this perspective it may be a surprise to some that the discipline of geography has a great deal to say about many of the critical issues facing society in the late twentieth century.
Geographers are engaged in valuable research and teaching on matters ranging from environmental change to social conflict (see Chapter 2). The value of these activities derives from the discipline's focus on the evolving character and organization of the Earth's surface; on the ways in which interactions of physical and human phenomena in space combine to create regions with distinctive natural and (or) social characteristics, or places; and on the influences those places have on a wide range of natural and human events and processes. Such concerns are not simply exercises in expanding the encyclopedic knowledge of faraway places; they go to the heart of some of the most urgent questions before decision makers today.
A central tenet of geography is that "location matters" for understanding a wide variety of processes and phenomena. Indeed, geography's focus on location provides a cross-cutting way of looking at processes and phenomena that other disciplines tend to treat in isolation. Geographers focus on "real world" relationships and dependencies among the phenomena and processes that give character to a place. Geographers also seek to understand relationships among places: for example, the flows of peoples, goods, and ideas that reinforce differentiation or enhance similarities. In other words, geographers study both the ''vertical" integration of characteristics that define place and the "horizontal" connections between places. Geographers also focus on the importance of scale (in both space and time) in these relationships. The study of these relationships has enabled geographers to pay attention to complexities of places and processes that are frequently treated in the abstract, if at all, by other disciplines.
Geography's perspectives are supported by a body of distinctive techniques for observation, such as field exploration, remote sensing, and spatial sampling, and for the analysis and display of geographic data, such as cartography, visualization, spatial statistics, and geographic information systems (GISs; see Chapter 4). These techniques are shared with other disciplines, but geography has contributed fundamentally to their development and improved application.
The traditional tool in geography for the display of spatially referenced information is the map. To many, the term "map" connotes a fixed, two-dimensional paper product containing point, line, and areal data. During the past generation, however, advances in data collection, storage, analysis, and display have made this traditional view obsolete. The modern map is a dynamic and multidimensional product that exists in digital form, opening up new areas of research and application for geographic investigation. This research has led to the development of GISs, which, along with techniques for geographic visualization and methods of spatial analysis, facilitate an increasingly complex and contextual understanding of the world. Current research in GISs is expanding
the technique to incorporate more advanced geographic concepts and analysis methods.
Geography's Contributions to Scientific Understanding and Decision Making
Geography offers significant insights into some of the major questions facing both the pure and applied sciences. In addition, as society itself is recognizing, many of the major questions facing society at the local, national, and international scales have very important geographic dimensions.
Geography's traditional interest in integrating phenomena and processes in particular places, for example, has a new relevance in science today, in connection with the search for what some have called a "science of complexity." In its explorations as a science of flows, geography has been a leader in understanding spatial interactions, a subject of broad interest to both science and society. Moreover, geography's long-standing concern with interdependencies among scales is relevant to discussions across the body of science of relationships between microscale (small or local) and macroscale (large or global) phenomena and processes (see Chapter 5).
Geographic perspectives and techniques have found important applications in decision making in both the private and the public sectors, especially as global economic and environmental issues and modern information technologies have grown in importance. Geographers have made significant contributions to decision making at local, regional, and global scales for a wide variety of issues—for example, management of hazards, understanding global environmental and economic changes and their interactions with local changes, and developing effective business strategies (see Chapter 6).
Strengthening Geography's Foundations
The ability of geographers to respond to the growing demand for its skills and perspectives is limited by several realities (see Chapter 7). Despite three decades of growth in the number of professional geographers, the geography community remains small relative to most other natural and social science disciplines. Few colleges and universities have large geography departments, and many institutions of higher learning have no geography programs at all, including some of the nation's leading universities. This situation is extraordinary by world standards because geography is a core subject in most universities in Europe and East Asia. Additionally, women and minorities are underrepresented in senior academic and professional positions relative to their numbers in the general population, and, at present, few minorities are entering the field. This small human and programmatic base will make it difficult for the discipline to respond
effectively to increased demands for attention—demands that are likely to increase still further in the years ahead, especially in education.
Realizing geography's potential requires more than addressing the problems presented by the discipline's small size and limited diversity, however. In several critical subject areas, geography's intellectual foundations need to be strengthened to ensure that its contributions to science and society are solidly grounded. The discipline needs to strengthen its understanding of complex systems;1 interactions between scales; interactions between society and nature; and geographic learning, including the effectiveness of interactive learning tools on geographic education. At least as important, the appreciation and use of geography by nongeographers need to be fostered, so that the capacity to make use of the discipline's perspectives, knowledge, and techniques grows along with the capacity of the discipline to supply them. This includes enhancing the geographic competency of the general population and fostering better geographic training in colleges and universities.
Filling these gaps will require external support of types and at levels beyond those that have been characteristic in the past, in a setting where conventional sources of support will be constrained by external circumstances. Looking toward the next century, it seems clear that realizing geography's potentials will require innovative new partnerships between provider and user, supported and supporter, one science and another, and basic research and applications of knowledge.
If geography as a discipline can be a pathfinder in developing and fulfilling such partnerships, it can play a significant role in realizing its potential, without depending entirely on external action. But in doing so the discipline faces its own internal challenges. In order to respond to external demands and to gain additional external support, the discipline needs to place increased emphasis on such traditional strengths as integration in place, field observation, and foreign field research, as well as geography education as a challenge for research and practice. It also needs to promote more professional interactions with other scientific disciplines and with users of geographic knowledge in government and business at all levels. And it needs to enhance not only its diversity as a discipline but also its appreciation for diversity.
The Rediscovering Geography Committee has concluded that a number of internal and external actions are needed to strengthen the discipline and thereby increase its contributions to science and society in the United States in the coming decades. Chapter 8 lists the full set of conclusions. The committee's 11 recommendations are divided into three categories oriented toward the external audiences of this report, including one recommendation about the process of implementing the previous 10:
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.
- More emphasis should be placed on priority-driven, cross-cutting projects.
- Increased emphasis should be given to research that improves the 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.
To improve geographic literacy:
- Geography education standards and other guidelines for improved geography education in the schools should be examined to identify subjects where geography's current knowledge base needs strengthening.
- A significant national program should be established to improve the geographic competence of the U.S. general population as well as of leaders in business, government, and nongovernmental interest groups at all levels.
- Linkages should be strengthened between academic geography and users of its research.
To strengthen geographic institutions:
- A high priority should be placed on increasing professional interactions between geographers and colleagues in other sciences.
- A specific effort should be made to identify and address disparities between the growing demands on geography as a subject and the current capabilities of geography to respond as a scientific discipline.
- A specific effort should be made to identify and examine needs and opportunities for professional geography to focus its research and teaching on certain specific problems or niches, given limitations on the human and financial resources of the discipline.
- 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.
To encourage implementation of these recommendations:
- Geographic and related organizations—especially the Association of American Geographers, National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation, and the National Research Council—should work together to develop and execute a plan to implement the recommendations in this report.