Tennessee proposes to combine history and geography

As reported by the Associated Press a few days ago, Tennessee state officials have proposed to combine history and geography curricula into a combined course a move that “will give students a deeper grasp of both subjects and free up more time for teaching language skills.” Educators, on the other hand, “predict that spending less time on geography will lead to a dearth of knowledge about geotechnical systems” (that is, GIS). This would be a most unfortunate outcome, not only for Geography, but for History as well.

Tennessee’s proposal would effectively fly in the face of German philosopher Immanuel Kant‘s work. He argued that human knowledge (science) could be organized in three ways. The first way was on the type of object studied, thus, biologists study biology (life), chemistry study chemicals, botanists study plant life. The second way was to study a number of things using a temporal dimension, everything studied has a certain time associated with it. Today’s plants have predecessors from million of years ago. Today’s political systems have evolved over time. This is History. The third way was to understand objects based on spatial relationships, Geography. To me (granted I’m a Geography booster), History and Geography are the foundation of the social sciences. Everything has a historical and geographic context, from political systems to river courses to atoms and chemical reactions, time and space affect each discipline.

Tennessee’s proposal doesn’t seem to agree with Kant and I don’t quite see the logic behind the argument that combining two disciplines into a single course gives students a “deeper grasp” of both subject matters. What I think is going to happen is that already poor geographic literacy rates in this country will continue to drop, at least in Tennessee. A further problem is the framing of geographic education, by the educators apparently, as primarily oriented with technology and IT. I agree that the tool of GIS has been a boon to the discipline. I love GIS and use it every day and make excuses to come up with ridiculous projects for myself (see: organic state). But to argue that the state should save Geography as a separate curriculum because of the potential impact on the state’s ability to harness “geotechnical systems” is just short sighted. Like a basic understanding of economics, political science, and government, a basic understanding of Geography is absolutely necessary to function in our globalizing and glocalizing world.

I did end up finding the website for the Tennessee Geographic Alliance (based at the University of Tennessee [Knoxville]). They cite the “deplorable ignorance of Geography among student and adult populations” as one of their raison d’être. I emailed one of the coordinator asking for comments on Tennessee’s proposal and if I get a response I shall certainly publish it. So stay tuned and in the mean time, I wonder what every one else thinks – is it a good move to combine history and geography classes? I don’t see it.

3 thoughts on “Tennessee proposes to combine history and geography

  1. I trained in historical geography. Tennessee’s plan sounds reasonable to me; however, how the plan and curriculum are implemented is critical. If the state takes the typical Kantian view that history and geography are separate (chronology vs. chorology), then I agree with your assessment that the combination will not be a good move. On the other hand, if Tennessee modeled the curriculum on the French approach to geography and history– a la Vidal de la Blache as well as Fernand Braudel and other Annales School historians– then I think it could make both subjects come alive for many students.

    • Thanks for your comment Michael! Do tell us more about the Annales school, I am not aware but would definitely appreciate the insight, and thanks also for reading! I agree that planning and implementation are always critical component’s in evaluating the success of a project, but I’m (self-declaring) a cynic. I hope that Tennessee implements, measures, and adjusts properly, but states are very good at this. :)

      • The Annales School was characterized by a focus on social themes rather than political, and use of techniques from a variety of social sciences, including geography, to understand and explain patterns across space and events through time. Quantitative analysis and regional focuses also feature in their work. Fernand Braudel’s work provides good examples. His two volume study, “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II,” opens with a thorough study of the physical geography of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean as a backdrop to a discussion of processes and events over time. In his “Identity of France” volume 1 focuses on history and environment; volume 2 on people and production.

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