Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Geography: It's the Law

More to the point: geography should be the law. My colleagues in the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance have spent more than a decade trying to convince the education bureaucracy in Massachusetts to expand geography education beyond 4th and 7th grade; I joined the effort in earnest when it became clear to me that the current regulations do not even allow for teachers to become fully qualified to teach even this minimal geography curriculum.

Fortunately, we live in a democracy, and today -- Flag Day -- we took the case to the People's House, in this case the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Education. Two previous visits to the State House with our giant EarthView globe had piqued the interest of several legislators, prompting Senator Stephen Brewer -- as part of a bipartisan group -- to introduce SB182, a bill in support of geography education.

I was one of five educators who spoke in support of the bill in a hearing chaired by Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, herself a former public-school teacher. Nobody testified against the bill, though we do still expect  resistance from some quarters. At the senator's request, I gave only a summary of the remarks below, which I had submitted in writing as part of a packet assembled for the committee by my MGA colleagues. The committee was receptive to the case we made in support of the bill, and reporters in the room seemed interested as well.

June 14, 2011
Joint Committee on Education
Massachusetts General Court

Dear Members of the Joint Committee:

Good morning. I am Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan, professor of geography at Bridgewater State University and part of the EarthView team that takes a 20-foot inflatable globe to Massachusetts schools on a weekly basis. We have had 25,000 Massachusetts students use EarthView. Most were delighted; some ecstatic -- a 7th grader last week tried to hug the whole thing! By essentially cutting off geography education after 7th grade, we are failing to capitalize on the natural curiosity young people have about their world, from the local neighborhood to the planet as a whole.

We are fortunate that one of the world’s foremost geographers resides here in Massachusetts. Dr. Harm de Blij of Chatham has written scores of geography books and was the geography editor for Good Morning America on the day in 1990 that Iraq invaded Kuwait. War, as they say, is how Americans learn geography, and for many viewers his impromptu map was the beginning of a very crucial geography lesson that was to unfold over coming days and years.

I mention Dr. de Blij because of two things he said during visits to our campus. “Ignorance of geography,” he said, “is a threat to our national security.” We are the country with the most to gain or lose from our interactions with nearly 200 other countries on the planet. The economic, strategic, and cultural connections between and among them affect us in countless ways. Yet we are behind most of them in the study of geography. We need geography to understand, protect, and promote our interests. In this changing world, we need every well-informed citizen we can get.

Dr. de Blij also said, “There are no unemployed geographers,” which is very nearly true. The GPS units many of us have in our cars may look like magic, but of course they are not. The only billionaire I’ve known personally was the geographer who developed the trip-routing technologies that underlie so many of the applications we now see. The geospatial tools that power GPS units are now used in rapidly growing industries related to everything from locational analysis, supply-chain management, and environmental management to dynamic marketing, public safety and law-enforcement.

As you know, tornadoes have recently had a tragic impact in the Commonwealth. Geographic tools such as weather forecasting and hazard communication, however, were responsible for limiting the loss of life. Following the disaster, geographic tools in supply-chain management and logistics have facilitated the deployment of utility personnel and accelerate the delivery of needed building materials.

The geo-technology sector continues to grow and to become more deeply woven into other fields. We cannot afford not to prepare our young people to enter the 21st century job market with an understanding of these technologies and how they connect to the real world around them.

The impetus for my involvement in this vital issue was an encounter with a student shortly after I became chair of the geography department. Laura had transferred from New Hampshire to be closer to family, and chose Bridgewater because it had programs in both geography and secondary education. After she got on campus she realized that she could not do both. Laura applies her geographic education as a banker now; in New Hampshire she could have been a teacher instead.

Thank you for your attention and consideration.

Supporters of SB182 gather after the hearing.
Students from 42° 24' 07" N; 72° 06' 47" W
a.k.a. Quabbin Middle School
prepared this poster explaining the benefits of the
geography bill. (Click to enlarge.)
So far, I have seen media coverage of this hearing only from State House News Service, a subscription-only service for regional media. The following is an excerpt from the SHNS article "Lawmakers Pitched on Financial Literacy, Genocide, Geography Education" by Matt Murphy:

Some educators cautioned lawmakers that however "well intentioned" these proposal[s] are, public school districts coping with diminished state aid and limited financial resources don't have the time or money to implement new unfunded mandates.
"It will be an exceptional burden to local school districts if these programs are mandated without accompanying resources," Needham Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst said, adding that there is not enough time in the school day to teach the material.
Rep. Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown) said she had been convinced by students at Harwich High School to file her bill (H 1064) requiring the teaching of genocide.
"We must teach about the mistakes and horrors of the past so we don't repeat those mistakes in the future," Peake said.
Many educators were also on hand carrying inflatable globes in support of legislation (S 182) filed by Sen. Stephen Brewer, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, that would revise the state's history and social science frameworks to include geography at all grade levels, and include geography in MCAS testing. The bill would also establish an additional license for teachers to obtain in order to teach geography.
"We have no geography beyond the 6th grade. That's a tragedy," said Bridgewater State University Professor Vernon Domingo, a member of the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance.
Domingo, a professor of geography, said," It's not your grandfather's geography," noting that students must be able to identify places like Afghanistan, Egypt or the Ukraine to properly understand events happening around the world.
Professor James Hayes Bohanan, the chair of the geography department at Bridgewater State and also a professor of Latin American and Caribbean studies, said geography is about more than pinpointing places on a map, but also about understanding trade, goods, immigration patterns and the importance of different world centers.
"Ignorance of geography is a threat to our national security," Bohanan [sic] said.

During the period we were at the hearing, Superintendent Gutekanst was the only "educator" to speak against any of the proposed measures, and he did so without any addressing the merits of any of the proposals discussed in the hearing. He did not mention the money wasted by a surfeit of administrators in the Commonwealth, which has at least 10 times as many superintendents as it should. Regionalizing school districts and reducing the reliance on high-stakes testing would free up more than enough time and money to teach all the subjects that need to be taught!

1 comment:

  1. thanks for posting, I will spread the word out here!


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