Geographical Palin

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Michael Palin, the incoming president of the Royal Geographical Society, spoke out in support of strengthening geography as an academic subject in the latest issue of Geographical, the society's magazine, according to a story in the Daily Mail:

ptp_101_01_l.jpg'It's a subject that still seems to be neglected,' he said.

'It's seen as a slightly nerdy subject, and I can't really begin to think why when you look at what's happening in the world.

'Whether it's endemics, terrorism, or global warming, knowing the geography is so vitally important. I want to overcome the feeling that geography isn't really a serious subject, or a subject you should choose to study - and say that it's the subject you ought to choose.'

In the same article, Palin said it was time for Britain to stop apologizing for the British Empire:

The TV star said: 'If we say that all of our past involvement with the world was bad and wicked and wrong, I think we're doing ourselves a great disservice.

'It has set up lines of communication between people that are still very strong.

'We still have links with other countries - culturally, politically and socially - that, perhaps, we shouldn't forget.'

(If the name seems familiar, you might recall Mr. Palin's role in a TV series that first aired 40 years ago this week. It seems to me that much of Monty Python's humor reflects the rigorous instruction in history, geography, and literature that Britons of Palin's generation received.)

(UPDATE: Just rediscovered where I found this story linked -- belated hat tip to Violins and Starships.)

Geography as a separate school subject had disappeared by the time I came along, having been replaced by "Social Studies," which mushed together a lot of related disciplines, teaching none of them well. (On the other hand, we had some great history classes, including Frank B. Ward's 7th grade American History and the U. S. Constitution test that you had to take over and over again until you achieved proficiency.)

One of the things I love about my oldest son's homeschool curriculum is the emphasis on learning the world map. Each week he has to learn a new continent or region -- it's South America this week; last week was Central America and the Antilles -- drawing the map freehand and labeling it with countries and capitals four times over the course of the week. The beginning of the course covered the US, with rivers and mountains along with states and capitals. He had to learn to draw Canada's provinces and territories as well. By the end of the class, he should be able to find any country on a map, and he'll have geographical hooks on which to hang information he picks up in news stories, history books, and fiction. Those geographical hooks will complement the chronological pegs he established by memorizing the timeline from the Veritas history cards. Without memorizing places, names, and dates, how can anyone organize the other facts one learns about the world?

Meanwhile, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service alumni are appalled at the watering down of a traditional subject called Map of the Modern World. The challenging course walked students through the evolution of political boundaries from the Napoleonic upheaval to the present day. The revamped course will include lectures on plate tectonics and global climate change and will emphasize physical geography over political geography. The course is considered a rite of passage for Georgetown SFS students, compared by this alumnus to a "boot camp":

In an earlier post on geography, I mentioned a course I took at Georgetown called "Map of the Modern World", a 1-credit boot camp of world geography and geopolitics. As a student at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service (SFS) I had to take this course as a graduation requirement-since the qualification exam rendered me, in Professor Pirtle's thundrous voice, "geographically ignorant." Even though it was a killer for a one-credit course, it was one of the most rewarding courses I took. I know of no other university that has a geography course that even comes close.

Yet, just as it does in the world of education, the "boutique" theories seem to be adopted by administrators as if they were flavors of the month. Such is the case at SFS, where the new dean, James Reardon-Anderson, wants to take over the course personally. Instead of the classic geopolitical survey that each student in the SFS has received (gratefully) for decades, Reardon-Anderson plans to restructure the course as a study of geographic forces and human interactions. The grit-and-grind of the Mercator map is replaced by the soft Venn diagrams of interactions, encounters and relationships.

The change has inspired a Facebook group called Take Back Map of the Modern World, which offers the catalog descriptions of the old and new versions:

Faculty: Keith Hrebenak

This one-credit-hour course is designed to provide you with regional overviews of the evolution of the world political map since 1800. The objective of this course is to enhance your basic working knowledge of the political map of the modern world as a first step in understanding world events and international relations. The method of instruction
will be lectures supported by a heavy dose of maps and short outside readings. The lectures will focus on the evolution of the modern political map of each region and on major nationalist, ethnic, boundary, and territorial conflicts and tension areas.

Faculty: James Reardon-Anderson

This one-credit course is designed to provide basic knowledge of the physical and political geography of the world. Weekly lectures cover the fundamental forces that shape the physical geography and the effects of physical geography on human behavior in ten regions of the world. The final exam covers information presented in the lectures,
the location and capitals of contemporary states, and the identification of major geographical features. The final examination is multiple choice and graded pass-fail. The course is required for graduation from the School of Foreign Service.

Since Georgetown's School of Foreign Service provides the United States with many of our career diplomatic leaders, I hope the school reverses course and again includes a rigorous political geography course as a core requirement. Better still, let's restore geography as one of the basic "grammars" to be learned by young school children, alongside parts of speech, spelling rules, and multiplication tables.

(Note: The photo above is from the photo section of Michael Palin's travel website.)

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3 Comments

Brooksider Author Profile Page said:

I was in 6th grade when Frank Ward started at Holland Hall. On his first day teaching us history he came in, sat down, opened his thermos and, finding it empty, said, "Damnation. Can't a man get a cup of coffee here?" We loved him.

At Holland Hall we began studying geography formally in fourth or fifth grade. Mr Reed made us hand draw countries like France, Russia, and Turkey, placing and naming cities, rivers, and mountains. We used the Land and Peoples books. It was wonderful.

One of my most proud possessions in high school was the Times Atlas of World History, showing the movements of people and cultures through history.

Now my children and their friends hardly know which way is north. Really!

I have tried to be supportive of public education, but when I look at today's curriculum compared to my own, I am horrified. You probably remember the recommended reading list for students preparing for college. Kids today haven't even heard of most of those titles.

Geography is not only a critical knowledge but loads of fun, and playing what-if scenarios with geography, creating alternative history, makes students look more closely at the world we live in. It should be a basic requirement, starting at the earliest age possible.

Great article. Thanks.

Bob said:

To the radicals that seized control of the Eductation Colleges to further their far Left-wing belief system and agenda for mankind, the study of geography is superfluous.

Afterall, when they have achieved a One World Government (a.k.a. New World Order), then what's the point of borders anyway. An anachronism.

Hence, the lack of emphasis in studying geography of any kind in today's "social studies" curriculum in K-12.


I remember my first semester of high school at Charles C. Mason, Coach Harris (who later went on to coach basketball at BTW) gave us a map of the US with the states drawn, but everything else blank. He told us to write in the names of the states. Everyone got to work and Coach sat back, content that he got a free hour without having to teach. About seven minutes later, geography nerd that I was, I handed him my completed map. He looked at it with some mild disgust, surveyed the rest of the class that was working away on the project and said, write in the state capitals. About eight minutes later, I handed him back my map. He looked me in the eye, sneered a bit and said, "Read a book."

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 5, 2009 11:55 PM.

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