Sunday, June 05, 2016

Geo Veritas

Schadenfreude -- taking joy in the pain or failures of others -- is an unattractive emotion. But it is exactly what many geographers -- especially those who work in the shadows of a certain venerable institution on the Charles River -- feel when we view these vignettes recorded on the edges of a Harvard commencement.

The clip is from a longer piece about private education in general, and fails to point out that it is geographic learning in particular that is missing in the background of these young scholars -- and future decision-makers. How many people with strong opinions on climate change would perform just as poorly? Far too many, it seems, and it is for this reason that any glee geographers take from this video is short-lived.

BSU EarthView as shown in the
 national standards for
geography education.
Photo: Ashley Costa (Harris)
National Geographic
We know that geographic illiteracy is a serious problem. We also know that decisions taken at Harvard almost 70 years ago are part of the cause. The short version is that homophobia was the cause, as shutting down the department was the only way to get rid of Derwent Whittlsey, the brilliant chair of the department when the attack on the department began in 1947. On the 40th anniversary of the events, Neil Smith wrote a detailed discussion of these and other factors in an analysis published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (now called the American Association of Geographers, of which I am a member.)

In an undated article on Education.About, Brian Baskerville briefly describes the factors that led to the closing of the department (though he erroneously uses "preference" to describe Whittlsey's sexual orientation). He goes on to assert that geography remains at Harvard, as each of Pattison's 1964 Four Traditions of Geography can be found in one form or another in various parts of the curriculum. This is a rather "thin gruel" as they say, and a far cry from the systematic study of geography that is required to develop a geographically informed person.

About a decade ago, Harvard tried -- in its own flawed way -- to make amends with geography. Or at least to reclaim the word, if not the discipline itself. The effort is described in an understandably self-serving article in Harvard Magazine, Geographers See Death, Birth and Job Prospects. The article acknowledges but dismisses the claims of homophobia as it tries to build the case that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is both the key to returning intellectual rigor to the field and a necessary part of mending the "hopeless divide" between human and physical geography.

This is all by way, of course, of promoting the GIS program at Harvard. Although it is good to see a significant aspect of our field embraced there, it sadly represents a real missed opportunity. The tools and technologies of geography are important, but they are not geography itself. A conversation I had at Harvard a few years ago with GIS pioneer Jack Dangermond was telling. He had given a presentation in which he offered example after example of geographic principles and patterns. After the lecture, I was hoping that he would lend support to our efforts to expand geography education in Massachusetts. He was shockingly dismissive of the idea. The founder of ESRI is so convinced of the value of his product that he thinks it makes geographic literacy irrelevant. It is as if Word and Excel would make writing and math obsolete (which I suppose they have for some people). He argued that gap in our knowledge of geography would be remedied simply by adding more data to our GIS databases and improving user interfaces.

Whatever really transpired in the 1940s, Harvard remains a drag on geographic literacy.
Veritas -- Truth

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