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Gil Grosvenor: Why We Need Geography

During Geography Awareness Week 2010, National Geographic Society Chairman of the Board Gil Grosvenor discusses why effective democracy requires geographic literacy, and other benefits of a thorough geographic education. By Ford Cochran

Gilbert M. Grosvenor, past editor of National Geographic magazine and president and chief executive of National Geographic, now chairs the Society’s Board of Trustees. During the 1980s, he helped to launch the National Geographic Education Foundation and a grass-roots nationwide geography education program that continues to work toward the goal of geographic literacy for American students. For his lifetime of service, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I spoke with Grosvenor in his office at our Washington, D.C. headquarters about the importance of geographic literacy and the Geographic’s commitment to training America’s K-12 teachers to teach geography.

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What’s on your mind?

What’s on my mind? Geography education’s always on my mind. In a democracy, if you don’t understand geography, you’re going to make some bad decisions. That can happen at the highest level of government. It can happen at your local level. It can happen at a town meeting.

Democracy demands that you be literate, that you be educated, that you understand issues. Otherwise, worse than casting your vote poorly, sometimes you’re going to cast it in an area you don’t want to cast it.

It’s on my mind that this nation, particularly at election times, has got to think about geoliteracy. Take Afghanistan: It is well known that the Obama administration, like every administration before it, conducts numerous surveys and polls to find out what American people think.

I think back to when President Obama was deciding an extraordinarily excruciating decision: Are we going to send more Afghanistan, are we going to leave it the way it is, or are we going to bring them home? Well, he wanted to find out what the American people thought about that. I applaud him for doing that. He should do that, he represent them.

So we have all these polls on Afghanistan and, not surprisingly, they come out half the people think we ought to send more troops, half the people say bring everybody home. That didn’t help him much.

That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is I know for absolute certainty that the people voting in those polls hadn’t the faintest idea what they were voting about. They hadn’t the faintest idea what the geographical aspects of that country are. They don’t understand tribal influences in that country. They don’t understand the lack of transportation and communication in Afghanistan. They don’t understand that the agriculture of Afghanistan, indeed the economy, is based on growing poppies. (I’m not saying that’s good, but I’m saying it’s fact.)They don’t understand the “revenge theory.” They really don’t understand it.

I would bet you that the majority of Americans, 75 percent of Americans, can’t even tell you who borders the country. Maybe some of them will get Pakistan. But will they get Iran? Iran has a huge, long border with Afghanistan. That’s an important aspect of our relations with Afghanistan.

It really disturbs me that the people the President wants to rely on for an opinion are basically uninformed.

The same is true at home, with the oil spill. Suddenly, because they got the oil well capped everybody thinks the problem’s gone away. In fact, the problem’s just begun. How are you going to clean up the Gulf of Mexico? How are you going to rebuild the marshes? Who’s going to pay for it, how’s it going to get done? It’s going to take years. What happens to the economy in the area? Those are all really crucial questions, but the Gulf of Mexico has dropped out of the news just because they’ve capped the well.

Again, that points up the fact that Americans don’t understand geography. The issues involved in the oil spill go far beyond capping the oil well.

I could go on and on. Unless we educate the electorate, democracy’s going to flounder.

You and the Geographic have made a long investment in training teachers, coaching them, giving them better skill sets to teach effectively in their classrooms–in geography education. Would you say there are some bright spots in the work that’s going on with those programs here in the U.S.?

I think one of the problems of working outside the government as we do is that you’re dealing with such a massive number of teachers. We can train 150,000 teachers and we don’t even keep up with attrition. We put in five, six, seven, eight, if we’re lucky, with some foundations, ten million dollars a year into geography education. Well, even though it’s a core subject, the United States government puts zero dollars into geography education. They put $100 million into history, etc., etc. But they put zero dollars into geography education.

If we just had one-tenth the amount of money that history has, put it through the private sectors so that a group of superior teachers in Illinois could teach the Illinois teachers how to teach geography, I guarantee you we’d be better off. I think that’s been the key to our program, what success we’ve had, is that we reach into the grass roots and they participate at the grass roots. It’s not driven from Washington, D.C. Our alliances are state-wide, and so it’s driven at the state level, which I think is a lot more effective.

It’s said in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. There are extraordinary opportunities for kids who grow up, go to college, get geographic skills, and take them out into the workforce right now, aren’t there? And that’s been documented.

Yes. And believe me, there are some centers of education that are excellent. Take Texas State University. They have 520 kids majoring in geography. When those kids graduate, every single one of them gets a job in geography-related fields. That could be anything from the obvious real estate industry, to bankers. How do you make loans without understanding geography? How many of our real estate problems today exist because people didn’t understand the principles of investing in real estate? The old cliche that real estate is location location location is somewhat true, but it’s also patterns of change, patterns of development, patterns of transportation. Those are all crucial factors, and a geographer can understand that.

Why does a banker need geography? If you’re making loans to a third-world country, you better know the economy of that country. You better know what their chief foreign currency earner is. Is it stable? Is it politically stable? Is it culturally stable? Those are all huge problems that involve the stability of that country. You better know that.

If you’re a farmer, you have to understand how you get your crops to market. Are your crops wanted? If you tried to grow a perishable crop in a part of the United States where there’s poor transportation, you’re going to go bankrupt because you’re not going to get your product to market. If you don’t understand the cost of distribution, if you don’t understand what parts of the country have certain eating habits that might not be prevalent in other parts of the country. Agriculture–geography’s a key to that.

I could go on about almost any other profession and make a good case that geography’s crucial. That’s why these kids from Texas State are so successful at getting jobs, because they’re geographically literate when they go out into the workforce.

A wonderful thing the Geographic’s done the last decade is tie geography to literacy. We have proven statistically that kids who learn to read about the broad aspects of geography learn faster than those that don’t. That has helped us tremendously to have geography accepted in the school systems. I think it’s true that geography, after all, is the world and all that’s in it. You’ve got to be interested in your world. So tying literacy to understanding geography was a brilliant idea. I think that will continue.

The same is true in language. It used to be if you wanted to study French, you would learn about Fifi’s dog. Well, Fifi’s out of style now. What you learn about if you’re learning French is you’re learning about French culture and French traditions. So you’re learning two things at once: You’re learning a language and you’re also learning about a different culture. And that’s huge. That’s really crucial. Learn more about Geography Awareness Week and find resources for teaching and learning geography on the National Geographic Education site and the My Wonderful World Blog.Photo of Gil Grosvenor by Robert L. Booth

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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