Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Geography - we hardly knew ya

I had thought to blog on this when I read it, but Catholicguaze got to it first.  In the GIS world, I get a newsletter (it’s pretty lengthy, more like a newspaper or a journal) from ESRI concerning their product ArcGIS, which is what I use at work.  Most of the time the articles are self aggrandizing, talking about new features of their product (that we heard about at the last couple of conferences) and what neat things people are doing with their products, but without many specifics as to how they did it.

So I usually just browse the journal.  This issue, however, had an interesting and lengthy article by Jerome Dobson called Bring Back Geography!  It details the decline of the discipline (not including the technical advances of GIS) since the end of World War 2, and how geography gets the short end of the stick at most institutions of learning.

Basically:  it’s not all about memorizing your states and capitals.

      Geography is more than you think. Geography is to space what history is to time. It is a spatial way of thinking, a science with distinctive methods and tools, a body of knowledge about places, and a set of information technologies that have been around for centuries. Geography is about understanding people and places and how real-world places function in a viscerally organic sense. It's about understanding spatial distributions and interpreting what they mean. It's about using technology to study, in the words of the late professor J. Rowland Illick, "why people do what they do where they do it." Geography is a dimensional science and humanity based on spatial logic in which locations, flows, and spatial associations are considered to be primary evidence of earth processes, both physical and cultural. Its hallmarks are spatial analysis, place-based research (e.g., regional studies, area studies, urban studies), and scientific integration.

There’s an interesting history of geographic thought, as well as the recent history, detailing how geography became prominent in the administrations of Wilson and Roosevelt, and then subsequently purged from universities left and right from 1948 on.

      In truth, nobody knows why geography was targeted on such a broad scale. For decades, there have been no geography departments in the Ivy League, except Dartmouth's undergraduate department. Of the top 20 private universities in the United States, only two currently have geography departments, though 15 of the top 20 public universities do.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have helped bring some prominence to the field, but GIS risks being a tool utilized by other disciplines instead of being defined and nurtured by the discipline that birthed it.

In many cases, geography exists in the guise of other departments.  Sometimes they’re called “area studies.”  Other times it’s “earth systems science.”  But geography isn’t mentioned, and geographers seem not to be welcome.  And so you ask, how do they propose to study the things they purport without expertise in geography?  How indeed.

      A laughable event from the past illustrates, in reverse, the state of geographic knowledge today. In 1897, the House of Representatives of the State of Indiana unanimously approved bill no. 246, which inadvertently would have changed the value of pi. Fortunately, the bill died a quiet death and never came before the Senate. The immediate agent of its defeat was Clarence A. Waldo, a professor of mathematics at Purdue University, who happened to visit the legislature; he was shown a copy of the bill and ridiculed its claims. Even if the good professor had not appeared, surely other voices would have materialized from mathematically informed government officials and staffers, journalists, educators, and the public.

      Today, however, politicians and pundits can make whatever pronouncements they please about geography, no matter how absurd, and there aren't enough geographically informed people to counter their claims. Geographically smart people exist, of course, in government offices, schools, businesses, and homes across the land, but they are too few. There's no sizable constituency to carry the day. Not even journalists ask the questions that should be asked. Worst of all, geography has slipped so far beneath the public consciousness that no politician or journalist is likely to seek an informed geographic opinion, even on matters of war and peace.

I’m constantly seeing errors in maps in the news and in other places.  Mostly little things, but who knows how much world-wide ire we engender when the press gets locations wrong.  Catholicguaze notes that CNN labeled Syria as Afghanistan on a map recently.

      What protects other disciplines from onslaughts like those that beset geography? You may imagine that public opposition would be fierce, and legions of academic peers would rise up in arms, but that did not happen in our case. You may imagine that your own discipline would not go down without a fight, but geographers accepted their fate far more graciously than they should have. Earlier this year, when I published an op-ed piece questioning how and why the nationwide purge had occurred, all but one of the public replies came from geographers, and several blamed the discipline itself. Yet every reason they offered was characteristic of many other disciplines, none of which were punished as we were.

It’s an interesting study in itself, I’m sure, as to how a discipline falls from grace that quickly.  Geography probably isn’t the only academic discipline that’s fallen away, and it probably won’t be the last.

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