As a professor of geography, I am sometimes asked how I became interested in the subject. For quite some time, this struck me as an odd question, since the answer seemed obvious: if one is sentient and observant of the world, one is by default interested in geography. Unlike Antoine de Saint Euxpery’s geographer in The Little Prince, real geographers are not only concerned with “eternal things,” but also with the daily patterns of all that surrounds us, and how these change across space and time. There is indeed a geographic “adventure in your community” to be had, if you simply consider the where, how and why behind the features encountered every day. To be a geographer, one needs only an awareness of “place,” a notion that represents the totality of the features that identify, characterize, and shape a location.
Such an awareness is vital, because even at a local scale it leads to a greater comprehension of a globalizing world. Those who have a weak knowledge and understanding of the world around them are destined to be at a disadvantage, both professionally and personally. Geography provides the fundament for such understanding. For the past several decades, studies have shown that American students, and the general public, lack a solid grounding in geography. When tested about their knowledge of other peoples and countries, for example, Americans typically rank near the bottom when compared to most Europeans. Some have explained this as simply the result of North America’s relative isolation, the fact that the country borders on only two other states, one of which is primarily English-speaking and shares a similar culture, and other factors, most of which, ironically enough, are geographic.
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Yet these excuses are no longer acceptable, or even relevant. Physical distances, in the age of modern transportation systems, have become a secondary consideration, and contact with the remainder of the world is no longer dependent on actual travel, although visiting other locations is certainly an excellent way to learn about them. In the era of the Internet and globalization, we can no longer think in terms of the world being “out there somewhere.” It is here and now, often right outside our doors, perhaps even in our homes. The things we eat and drink, the vehicles we use for transportation, even the clothing we wear all come to us from “out there.” A failure to appreciate this diminishes us both intellectually and culturally.
2011 marks the twenty-fifth year we have celebrated Geography Awareness Week in the United States. Since 1987, when the first such observance took place, almost 30 new independent states have appeared on the world map (including one just this year), a single currency has been adopted by nearly as many European countries, and Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) have made it possible for anyone to pinpoint any location on the planet. Yet in 2006, five years after U.S. forces began fighting in Afghanistan and almost twenty years after the first Geography Awareness Week, a survey of young Americans found that ninety percent could not locate that country on a map. There’s still a long way to go for educators in raising geographic awareness—let it begin with an adventure in your community.
Reuel R. Hanks, PhD, is professor of geography at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. He has taught courses on human and regional geography for more than 25 years.