When I was hired as a geography teacher in 2001, I was out of my element. I was a history person. I knew bizarre bits of American History and Ancient Civilizations, but nothing about geography. In that first year, my career plan was simple: wait it out. Wait until there was an opening in ancient civilizations or U.S. history, and then move to that curriculum.
The only geography class I ever had was when I was in seventh grade. I remember learning basic map skills – latitude and longitude, cardinal directions, scale, and how to interpret the key. We learned about landforms like peninsulas, straits, and mountains. We discussed climate and biomes. Most important (apparently), we took map quizzes.
But since I started my geography career in August 2001, I experienced the Sputnik moment for geography, 9/11.
Like everyone else, I have vivid memories of that day. I remember my students doing an activity using roadmaps to find the best route across the state of Illinois. But while my students sat in groups with giant Illinois roadmaps trying to figure out Interstates and state routes, the world had changed dramatically.
As we began to process who had done this, a more important question emerged, why? Why did people want to do this to us? I remember the Newsweek cover a few weeks after, “Why do they hate us?” Most of us had no idea.
It became obvious that it wasn’t just my students who needed to learn about the world, but I did too. I knew where Afghanistan was on a map, but I didn’t know much more than that. I didn’t know what the Taliban was. I didn’t understand that the government was one of the most repressive governments in the world. In my mind, Afghanistan was the country that had fought off the Soviet Union in the 1980s, so therefore, they must be our ally. I may have known the physical geography of Afghanistan, but I was ignorant to the human geography that existed there.
To get back to the point, geography matters today more than ever, but only if we are looking at the right things. Google has changed our world, and geography is included in that. I haven’t given my students a map quiz in years because there isn’t really a need to memorize where countries are. Students can Google any country in the world to find its location.
Geography matters more now than ever because students need to know human geography. They need to understand the relationships that exist between cultures. They need to see not just the differences in cultures, but the similarities. Students need to know that the kid sitting in a school in Afghanistan today, probably doesn’t speak the same language, practice the same religion, or live in a home that looks anything like a student in the United States, but they have a lot of things in common. They both love their families, they both want to play, and they both want to learn. When we focus on the similarities instead of the differences, it changes the picture.
Geography matters today more than ever because our students are growing up in a globalized world. Nearly all business is international. Our students will never work in isolation. They need to know that the others they work with, whether in a cubicle down the hall or on a screen halfway around the world all have ideas and value. While they might see the problem and solution differently, they still see the problem and have solutions.
Geography matters now more than ever because of crises that range from North Korea to the global water crisis to global health issues.
Geography matters because learning about a problem isn’t enough, we have to take action to solve them.
Geography matters because we are all connected.
Geography matters because this is our world.