In the past decade, concerns about "geographic illiteracy" have been the catalyst for a new focus on geography in this country. Our future as a nation depends substantially on our knowledge base, and many observers agree that current problems with productivity and competitiveness can be traced in large part to deficiencies in this knowledge base among our fellow citizens. One of the most glaring of these deficiencies is in our knowledge of geography, which is the reason for this report.
Recent calls to do something about geographic illiteracy in the United States can be traced to concerns in the 1980s 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. For example, in a 1986 survey of adults in nine countries, young U.S. adults knew the least about geography of any age group in any country. About one-half could not point out South Africa on a map or identify even one South American country, and only 55 percent could locate New York (Gallup Organization, Inc., 1988). Similarly, a 1987 survey of 5,000 high school seniors in seven cities found that one-quarter of Dallas students could not name the country bordering the United States on the south (Gallup Organization, Inc., 1988).
Since the mid-1980s, calls for attention to geographic illiteracy have been frequent, not only from academia and the federal government but from business and state government as well. Consider the following examples:
We as a nation are constantly surprised by world political and economic events. They occur in places we never heard of for reasons we do not understand. And
we often do not realize the importance of these events in our daily lives. . . . We must accept the fact that we are as dependent on other nations as they are on us, and we must begin to understand our global neighbors. . . . The problem is that we often do not teach geography in this country, and when we do, it is frequently taught poorly.1 (Southern Governors' Association, Cornerstone of Competition, November 1986)
I was disturbed by a new survey that shows most Americans don't know where to find the major trouble spots of the world. . . . Before we can figure out how to stop people from stealing our jobs or sending us their illegal drugs, we at least had better find out where they are. (Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune, July 31, 1988)
The United States is not well-prepared for international trade. . . . How are we to open overseas markets when other cultures are only dimly understood? The imperatives are clear: It is time to learn languages. It is time to learn geography. It is time to change our thinking about the world around us. For we cannot compete in a world that is a mystery beyond our borders. (National Governors' Association, America in Transition: The International Frontier, 1989)
Geographic information is critical to promote economic development, improve our stewardship of natural resources, and protect the environment. (Presidential Executive Order, Coordinating Geographic Data Acquisition and Access: The National Spatial Data Infrastructure, April 11, 1994)
Behind these calls for increased attention to geographic illiteracy in a very broad sense is a growing public recognition that our national well-being is related to global markets and international political developments, the continued prominence of environmental issues in social discourse, and the emergence of computer and telecommunications technologies that emphasize graphic images such as maps and other spatial diagrams.
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 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,2 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, geography graduate program enrollments grew by 33.4 percent, compared with a 15.3 percent increase for the social sciences and a 5.4 percent decrease for the environmental sciences (see Figure 1.1 and Appendix A).
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 been highlighting the importance of geographic perspectives (e.g., Giddens, 1984; Cliff and others, 1986; Forman and Godron, 1986; Krugman, 1991; Soule, 1991; Ruggie, 1993). The importance of a geographic perspective—through recognizing the critical importance of such notions as place and scale—is being acknowledged in many fields, extending the influence of geography well beyond its relatively small group of professional practitioners.
This increased emphasis on the perspectives, knowledge, and tools 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 the broad concerns of society and science? Also, 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, in 1993 the National Research Council (NRC) established the Rediscovering Geography Committee to perform a comprehensive
assessment of geography in the United States. The objectives of the assessment are the following:
- 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 the future directions of the discipline in the United States.
Context of the Report
This assessment was conducted during a time of widespread change in conditions both external and internal to the discipline. As a result, change became a central theme of the committee's deliberations. The deliberations resulted in this report, which differs significantly from previous NRC assessments of the discipline.3 Earlier assessments focused internally on disciplinary paradigms and vocabulary. This report instead is focused outward on broad national and global issues; geography's potential as a body of knowledge, perspectives, and techniques to help address them; and constraints on geography's capability as an academic discipline to respond. It is written to articulate to the scientific and policy making communities geography's relevance to such issues, to assist the discipline itself in strengthening its connections with them, and to spotlight the roles of scientific knowledge and skills in geography's response to external expectations.
In order to put the report in perspective, the changes considered by the committee are worth reviewing.
Changes in Society
During the past decade, American society has been profoundly affected by global geopolitical, political-economic, and environmental changes. In this dramatic period, political and economic reforms in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe ended the Cold War, which dominated international relations for nearly half a century. The Pacific Rim and Western Europe have become potent competitors for international and U.S. domestic markets, creating new concerns about the U.S. trade balance and U.S. jobs. Market reform and democratization in many areas—Eastern Europe, India, China, Mexico, South Africa, and else-
where—have changed international political-economic relationships. Scientific evidence of a thinning of the Earth's ozone layer has led to a new sensitivity to trends in global environmental change, and further evidence of accelerated changes in our physical environment—for example, land and water pollution, deforestation, and desertification—has triggered a general concern about "sustainable development." In fact, uneasiness about environmental changes, local and distant, is having an unprecedented impact on policy agendas and market conditions worldwide. In addition, technological change has produced a revolution in information delivery and communication, as powerfully demonstrated during the Gulf War of 1991. Few periods in world history have seen such widespread fundamental change. Although these changes have focused welcome attention on geography as a subject, geography as an academic discipline is limited by size and other constraints from contributing its knowledge, perspectives, and techniques to improving the nation's ability to cope with and prosper under these changing conditions.
Changes in Relationships Between Society and Science
American society has grown increasingly skeptical about the wisdom and value of science, as traditionally defined. One reason may be that advances in science have not been matched by advances in the human condition (e.g., Handler, 1979). Another may be that society expects science to reduce uncertainties, when in so many cases it has instead increased uncertainties. At any rate, science is now being held accountable for its payoffs, during a period when public funds to support research and education are increasingly scarce (NRC, 1993a). The era when public support for science could be expected to increase more rapidly than the nation's rate of economic growth is over, at least for now (Gibbons, 1994), and science is being measured against its usefulness in improving the human condition (OSTP, 1994). Although geography is not accustomed as an academic discipline to thinking in these terms, it has a history of relatively close links between basic research and societal issues. This experience can be useful to the scientific community, as well as to geography itself, under the new conditions for support of science.
Changes in Relationships Between Society and Geography
Perhaps the most dramatic indication of changes in geography's external environment has been the emergence of a strong grass-roots demand for geography education for the first time in U.S. history. Without reviewing the history of Goals 2000: The Educate America Act in any detail, it is clear that geography is being asked to meet educational needs at kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) levels that extend beyond geography as an academic discipline per se. In many respects, geography is being seen as an umbrella under which students
are taught broadly about interconnections in the contemporary world. Although this spotlight is most welcome from the standpoint of a discipline that for decades felt that it received too little attention, it comes at a time when most universities and institutions that support research face severe financial stringencies, limiting their ability to provide the resources needed to meet the increased expectations from geography that are equivalent to those of much larger bodies of science.
Changes Within Geography Itself
Finally, since the previous NRC assessments, geography in the United States has become larger and more prominent. For example, since 1960 the membership of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) has grown from 2,000 to more than 7,000, and the number of geographers elected to the National Academy of Sciences has increased from zero to eight. Geography has changed in its central thrusts as a discipline, moving toward emphases articulated by Robert Kates as president of the AAG in 1993/1994: improving geographic literacy, relating geographic scholarship to social needs, and strengthening connections with others (Kates, 1994a). The discipline has become more issue oriented in its research agendas, and it has directed more of its attention to moral dimensions of research questions.4 Such major geographic organizations as the AAG and the National Geographic Society (NGS) have moved toward closer associations, and all of geography's national associations (AAG, NGS, the National Council for Geographic Education, and the American Geographical Society) have come together to promote initiatives in geographic education through the Geography Education National Implementation Project.5
Many of these changes within geography are themselves responses to changes in society, and some of them have affected the ways professional geographers view the search for knowledge. Although this report is about geography as a science, such a focus is itself different from what it was a generation ago (see Sidebar 1.1).
At the same time, geography (like other disciplines) has been shaped by its access to resources for research and teaching. For instance, the focus in the late 1960s and early 1970s on U.S. social and environmental problems, combined with a steep reduction in financial support for foreign-area research, reduced the proportion of younger American geographers pursuing field research in other countries. In addition, the rapidly growing importance of technologies for information gathering, analysis, and display has increased the costs of staying at the frontier in many fields of geographic research.
Taken together, these changes are both so profound and so recent that,
In the sense of research that provides scientifically valid methods to investigate many of the moral questions of concern to society.
For additional information about geography's organizations, see Appendix B.
SIDEBAR 1.1 Geography's Approaches to Learning
Caught up in a world of change, geography has been extending and diversifying its ways of seeking knowledge, that is, its epistemologies. The ascendance of traditional scientific methods in the 1960s brought a new emphasis on theory within both the subject and the discipline, and these traditions have matured and progressed since then, especially in physical geography. Meanwhile, a full complement of other approaches being explored in the social sciences and humanities have also found expression in geography, partly because geography's subject matter is so wide-ranging, and partly because of concerns across the research world about claims of neutrality or objectivity associated with any particular path toward knowledge. For example, ''social theory" has had a major impact on geographic research, emphasizing the societal context of historical processes, and geographers have struggled with arguments that all "scientific" theory and observations are socially constructed and that all interpretations are contingent on the social context of the analyst (see the last section in Chapter 3, "Geographic Epistemologies"). Professional geographers also carry out research that is not intended to be scientific but is anchored in the humanities. Insights from such research are often valuable sources of ideas for geography as a science, and they remind geographers of the power of imagination and narrative in pursuing understanding.
This report takes an eclectic and inclusive view of geography as a science, emphasizing the relevance of research results more than the procedures used to derive them. It reflects the committee's view, permeating many of the sciences today, that multiple paths toward understanding are worth exploring and that break-throughs in learning are likely to be fostered by a dialogue among many different paths.
looking toward a new century, the committee believes that its task calls for breaking new ground.
Scope of the Report
A further issue for the committee was its interpretation of relevance, in terms of external expectations on the academic discipline of geography. Rather than limiting the scope of its work to geographic illiteracy, narrowly defined (e.g., the role of geography in disseminating basic facts about foreign areas), the committee examined geography's current and potential connections with a broader range of societal and scientific challenges and opportunities as the twentieth century draws to a close.
As one example of such a broader agenda, the National Science Foundation recently identified eight strategic fields of research, education, and information transfer, associated with U.S. national objectives identified by the President's National Science and Technology Council (NSF, 1994). Of these, five are fields in which geography should be a central contributor: global change research;
environmental research; high-performance computing and communications (e.g., geographic information systems and visualization); civil (public) infrastructure systems; and science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education consonant with the Educate America Act. Geography is also relevant in more subtle ways to the other three fields—biotechnology, advanced materials and processes, and advanced manufacturing technology—through its focus on environmental and social issues, resource use, locational decisions, and technology transfer.
At the same time, as it seeks to improve our understanding of these issues and the more basic questions that underlie them, science is confronting certain fundamental issues across a wide range of disciplines that seem conceptually similar. As a part of science, geography is deeply involved in some of these issues, such as relationships between macroscale and phenomena and processes,6 understanding complex systems, 7 developing integrative approaches to understanding complexity, and understanding relationships between form and function.
This report examines geography's current and potential relevance to these kinds of issues for science as well as to salient issues for society.
Content of the Report
To address these questions, Chapter 2 of this report offers several brief examples of geography's relevance to critical issues for U.S. and international society, laying a foundation for later chapters. Chapter 3 summarizes the perspectives of geography as it addresses these and other issues, and Chapter 4 describes geography's techniques. Chapters 5 and 6 then turn in somewhat more detail to geography's potential to contribute first to scientific understanding related to critical issues and then to decision making related to such issues. Chapter 7 confronts certain needs for research and learning initiatives in order to strengthen the discipline's foundations if it is to respond effectively to the changes that confront it, including the unprecedented demands to support educational reform in the United States. Finally, Chapter 8 presents the committee's conclusions and recommendations related to research, education, and outreach. Appendix A reports available data on education and employment trends in geography.
As noted previously, this report is written partly to address the interests
and concerns of nongeographers about geography's subject matter rather than geography as a discipline (see Sidebar 1.2). It does not review the current state of geography to inform the discipline itself. It is not a description of the history of the discipline in the United States or of how its history has been different in other countries. It is not the statement of a disciplinary consensus on the issues that are addressed. It does not provide a comprehensive review of geography's literature. Indeed, the committee made a conscious effort to keep referencing to a minimum.8
Instead, this report is written for the broad audience that is curious about geography's new place in a national spotlight. It reflects the consensus of the committee on how geography can contribute to issues for science and society on the threshold of the twenty-first century.
SIDEBAR 1.2 Geography, Geographer, Geographic: What's in a Name?
The knowledge, perspectives, and techniques of geography (i.e., geography's subject matter), which are discussed in Chapters 3 and 4 of this report, have found wide application in many scientific fields, and they are practiced by more than professional geographers alone. In preparing this assessment of the relevance of geography to science and society, the committee focused on this subject matter because that is the essence of the rising external interest, rather than on the discipline per se.
The examples used in this report were largely taken from the geography literature with which the committee is most familiar, although some references are also made to work by scientists who would not call themselves geographers nor refer to their work as "geographic," even though it concerns geography's subject matter. The committee has made no effort to define the boundaries of geography as an academic discipline because the boundaries are diffuse and unlikely to be of much interest to the nongeography audience for this report. Nor has the committee sought to lay claim to an expanded boundary for geography as a discipline by claiming the geographic work of other disciplines as its own. Rather, the committee's intention is to illustrate the application of geography's subject matter wherever it is done—and thereby to demonstrate geography's interconnectedness to other scientific disciplines, which hastens the flow of ideas, concepts, and techniques, and to encourage a stronger influence of geography far beyond its small group of academic practitioners.
In this report the committee uses the term geography to refer to the academic discipline and its subject matter, some of which is shared with other natural and social science disciplines. The term geographer is used to refer to practitioners of geography who have acquired expertise in the discipline's knowledge, perspectives, and techniques, either through academic training or other professional experience. The term geographic is used to differentiate the subject matter of geography from the academic discipline.