Location, location, location

Why don't Americans know geography?


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By Joseph Picard

In September of 2016, shortly before the presidential elections, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was a guest on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. A journalist asked:

“What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?”

Johnson replied, “And what is Aleppo?”

Gary Johnson was never going to be president, so his answer did not cost him the election. But he was rightly mortified. Aleppo is a city in Syria and, as the interviewer told Johnson, “the epicenter of the refugee crisis.”

Johnson knew about the Syrian war and refugee crisis and gave a cogent response once he understood the question. He’s an intelligent man, a graduate of the University of New Mexico with a degree in political science, a successful businessman and a former governor of New Mexico. Yet, in a pinch, he failed to connect a Syrian city with the country of Syria. He did not know his geography.

In that regard, Gary Johnson is hardly unique.

In the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s Report Card, almost three-quarters of eighth-grade students tested below proficient in geography.

American college students and graduates don’t do much better. In 2016, the National Geographic Society and the Council on Foreign Relations jointly conducted a 75-question survey among college students and graduates. The average score was 55. That’s a D.

“Although most respondents could answer the most basic questions about geography, they performed poorly on subjects that required cultural and demographic knowledge, such as questions about population, language, and religion. More than two-thirds of respondents, for example, couldn’t identify Indonesia as a majority-Muslim nation,” according to Becky Little, writing for National Geographic.

Why the global ignorance, especially in an era when so many technological tools – Google Earth, Google Maps, Lizard Point, the CIA World Book, to name a few — are available to students, teachers and most of the rest of us?

The government, in response to the poor showing on the national Report Card, conducted a study trying to find out why students lack proficiency in geography:

1. More emphasis is given to other subjects

2. Geography is not a required subject in most states

3. Most geography instruction is incorporated into social studies classes; Social studies teachers spend only 10% of their time teaching geography.

“Teachers try to weave geography into existing curricula, but it’s a struggle because teaching geography is not mandated,” said Michael Rossi, Sparta Superintendent of Schools. “Mandating the teaching of geography would be a step in the right direction. It will affect what we do in education, which is now largely driven by STEM.”

Rossi means that geography is not mandated to be taught as a single, distinct subject. The New Jersey public school standards direct that students become “globally aware” and learn to appreciate “the global dynamics between people, places, and resources.” But the state expects these goals to be reached through social studies classes. The Report Card says it's not happenng.

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, As the GAO report suggests, and most educators agree, more emphasis is given to STEM courses than to social studies, and the emphasis in social studies is given to history.

“When you look at it, history is geography,” said Rossi, who was a history teacher and, 30 years ago, taught a course on the geography of history.

“It is critically important to emphasize the role geography has played in shaping history,” he said. “The land grabs, for example, the seizing of natural resources. The history of Europe, the carving up of Africa, the history of America with the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. The struggles for natural resources are at the heart of historic studies, and natural resources are at the heart of geographic studies.”

Anthony Balzano, professor of anthropology and sociology at Sussex County Community College, agreed.

“The geographic perspective is still very valid,” he said. “We need to know about the interactions of people and resources from different physical locations.”

Balzano said the emphasis on geography has disappeared from the K-12 curriculum.

“Why? The emphasis on standardized tests, teaching to the test, along with an attitude among students of why do we need to know about Peru or Uganda,” he said.

Teachers concentrating on teaching to the standardized tests often do not have the time, or find the time, to explain to students why it is important to know about Peru or Uganda or, for that matter, Louisiana or Lake Erie.

“Too many young people are becoming insular and isolated, and that’s not good,” Balzano said. “You miss so much when you don’t understand the global connections.”

Cultural insularity is worrisome to many educators, who see knowledge of geography as a countervailing force.

“Teaching students about cultures different than their own helps mitigate the idea of ‘other-ness’ that is so prevalent in our society today,” said Michael Lauricella, supervisor of Social Studies for Sparta schools.

A science teacher at Chatham High School, Missy Holzer, is also an instructor at Rutgers University’s Department of Geography, and a National Geographic Certified Educator. The Nat Geo certification program is designed to build geographic competency across academic disciplines.

“Geography can provide students with the what’s, where’s, why’s, and how’s (all fact driven) which can be integrated to formulate spatial thought, which one would hope will assist in thwarting the political challenges sweeping over the globe,” Holzer said.

Educators are not the only ones concerned.

New Jersey State Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, a Democrat representing parts of Camden and Gloucester counties, has introduced a bill “to study the need for, and advisability of,” requiring geography to be taught in high school.

“While the Internet has brought everyone closer together in some ways, people here and elsewhere in the world are becoming more intolerant,” Moriarty said. “We need a better understanding of the world. When we know more about another culture, we become more understanding and more tolerant.”

Moriarty said that, in the current educational landscape, geography is just not taught enough.

“It would be better learned, if we make it a subject by itself,” he said.

The bill is currently in the Assembly Education Committee where, Moriarty said, it is “stagnant.”

“I am making another push to move it forward this year,” he said.

Holzer and Rossi are among those educators who agree with Moriarty’s view that mandating a geography course would be a better way of teaching the subject.

“Geography is a required course in high school throughout Europe,” Holzer said, noting that European students are more proficient in the subject.

But Sparta’s Lauricella is not sold on mandating a geography course.

“I think it is essential to pair geography with the history and civics we currently teach,” he said. “It is more effective, for most students, to learn geography in conjunction with historical content than to learn geography in isolation.”

But how to counteract geography being the 10-percent ugly duckling of social studies? By having educators emphasize it, Lauricella said.

“In Sparta, we are committed to supporting geography education within our social studies classes,” he said. “I have been exploring ways to expand geography offerings for students who are particularly passionate about geography, as well. One immediate example of this was the expansion of the National Geographic Geography Bee to the entire middle school for the first time. Credit to Ms. Shefferman for spearheading that effort.”

That’s Cherie Shefferman, a teacher in Sparta schools’ Sparta Township Enrichment Program, or S.T.E.P. Shefferman is credited by Lorraine Belush and her son Ian Bellush for inspiring Ian’s love of geography. Ian won the middle school Nat Geo Geography Bee this year.

Ian said he has always liked maps and almanacs, but it was when Shefferman showed the class a video of the 2017 Geography Bee that his interest soared.

“I like learning about all these cool places,” said Ian, a seventh grader. “If a country has a problem, you can relate it to geography.”

Shefferman also introduced Ian to Lizard Point, a website dedicated to making education enjoyable, with a hefty geography component. It was a combination of the teacher and the technology that inspired Ian Bellush.

“Modern technologies provide teachers and students with some valuable tools and they can certainly be applied to the study of geography,” Sparta Superintendent Rossi said. “But it is the teachers who need to provide an educational experience that is relevant to the students and their world. The magic is not in the curriculum. The magic is in the instructor.”

Odds are Ian Bellush would have known what Aleppo was.



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