Geography in the United States is dead. And geographers killed it. Obviously, I’m generalizing and being (only somewhat) sensationalist, partially because I’m terrible at introductions and partially because I need to entertain myself. But the crux of the idea is that the discipline of Geography in the U.S. has withered and its practitioners seem to not have noticed and, even worse, if they have they don’t seem to care. Which is a shame, I love Geography, not (just) because it gave me a job, a career, and an awesome perspective, but because my life is Geography. And here’s evidence of geography’s lack of influence – I didn’t realize it was something beyond memorization until university. This is a problem.
And this is why I started Z-Geography, to elevate the status of and promote the discipline. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the name is based on the Z axis in a three dimensional Cartesian coordinate system in GEOmetry (a discipline that was originally concerned with measuring the Earth, whereas GEOgraphy was concerned with describing it). In geographic coordinates the Z axis corresponds with elevation. Hence elevating geography.
Back to the problem, Geography is unimportant. This is evidenced in the lack of visibility enjoyed by the discipline outside its own ranks. Most can name a famous economist, political scientist, historian, psychologist, or anthopologist. Few can name a famous geographer, living or dead. Beyond this, few people equate Geography with their daily lives. Economics, politics, history, psychology have easily identifiable applications to their daily lives. Balance the household budget, figure out who you’re going to vote for, the history of your town or family, and hypothesize why your colleague is a lunatic. Why doesn’t Geography resonate with “non-geographers”?
The answer is two fold. From the top (i.e. universities) there is a constant debate between the “ivory tower” and “populists”. Some ivory tower professors view a “popular” Geography as not intellectually rigorous or just undesirable, a dishonorable path for the discipline. The populists would bring Geography “to the masses.” Of course, professors range across the spectrum and would probably taken different stances depending on the public involved (government? high school students? business leaders?) and the sub-disciplines (economic geography?, demography?). Generally, the “ivory tower” wins out not only because some professors really don’t think Geography should be popularized but because some professors are just too busy to engage with local schools (thanks to endless classes, papers, books, and lectures) or too apathetic.
From the bottom geography education in primary schools in the U.S. is absolutely dismal. It focuses primarily on memorization and categorization. What is the capital of Tokyo? What is the longest river in Asia? Every geographer (myself included) is asked similar questions BY ADULTS. After I graduated college with an undergraduate degree in Geography, someone asked me what the capital of Belarus was. Imaging asking an economist how many cents are in a dollar – that’s the equivalent level of insult. If more advanced Geography is taught its usually part of a “world regions” or “world cultures” course that is a combination of sociology, cultural geography, and anthropology. When I entered university (as an undergraduate studying International Affairs), I had no idea “Geography” was a major AND that it involved actual rigorous research and thought (not rote memorization).
The result is most Americans, business leaders, politicians, bus drivers, and train conductors have a warped and limited appreciation for geography. It seems that Americans understanding of things like politics, economics, and literature has increased markedly over the past 50 years, geography awareness is still rudimentary at best. Not convinced? Take the (admittedly not very academically rigorous) Google Instant results, type in “Geography” the top 5 hits (after “Geography”) are “Geography quiz”, “Geography games”, Geography bee”, “Geography trivia”, and “Geography awareness week”. Barring the last one, which makes my point entirely, the rest are what we (as Americans) remember about Geography from our youth – rote memorization. Spots on a map. Now try another discipline, “Economics”. The top 5 are: “Economics in one lesson”, “Economics major”, “Economics definition”, “Economics umd”, and “Economics for dummies”. Incidentally, “economics in one lesson” is a book published in 1946 (I couldn’t resist). The most searched about topic besides “economics” is a book written over HALF A CENTURY AGO. To put this in perspective, it would be like asking a random person on the street “Do you know who Adam Smith is?” And they reply, invariably, “Of course.” Based on our Geography results ask a random person in your life tomorrow “Do you know who William Morris Davis is?”. Besides the definitional search term and the well known brand, there are two involved with higher learning, looking for a major and the University of Maryland. Based on this quick informal survey, and the results of your own “Who is…” survey, and the fact that only Dartmouth College among Ivy League schools have a proper Geography department (Harvard has a “Center for Geographic Analysis”), I think you’ll agree. Geography in the U.S. is in a very bad way.
This is why Z-Geography exists: to elevate and popularize the discipline. Its about getting you, the reader, to think about things geographically – as you go along you will eventually realize: Geography is everything.
In closing I offer this definition of the discipline: Geography is the study of an area with particular emphasis on its people, its landscape, and the myriad ways in which several areas and their phenomena are related.