American Geography Education

Currently, the United States is the only major world power where it is common for students to go through their entire academic lives without ever taking a course in geography. Geography as a subject has gone through various periods of prominance and neglect over the past 235 years. These periods are sometimes separated into four categories (Paul, 2011).

The Early Years (1776-1830)
  • As geography began to be established as a field of study in Europe, it would have seemed natural for schools in the new nation on the other side of the Atlantic to embrace geography as part of a well-rounded education; however, without the top-down control mechanism in society that was common in Europe, geography education in the United States was very inconsistent. (Mahony, 1988)
  • Even before national independence, Harvard University had instituted map and globe study. School teachers had students practice rote memorization of geographical facts for college admissions tests. (Libbee and Stoltman, 1988)
  • Most geography texts were written from a British perspective which did not go over well in the newly free nation. (Mahony, 1988) In 1784, Jedidiah Morse published the first American geography texts which unfortunately reinforced the rote method of memorization.
  • In the early years of America, after independence from Britain, the intellectual elite labelled geography as perhaps the most significant area of study. This most likely stemmed from the prominence of geography as a subject in Western Europe at the time.
  • This was an era of booming international trade, and there were also national security incentives to place importance on geography.
  • John Adams: "Geography is a branch of knowledge, not only very useful, but absolutely necessary, to every person of public character whether in civil or military life." (Dahmann, 2003)
  • Thomas Jefferson: proposed a bill in 1778 to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia that included geography as a core curriculum.
  • George Washington: he was a former cartographer and surveyor before becoming general in the army. He established the Geographer's Department in 1977 and appointed a Geographer of the United States.
  • Public education saw the publication of a multitude of geography textbooks during this time period.
  • Jared Sparks: "Few studies are more useful, few more easily attained, and none more universally neglected, than of geography" (1816)
  • The geography department was dropped by Harvard in 1816, and all other Ivy League schools followed suit except University of Pennsylvania.

Westward Expansion and From Universities to Schools (1831-1900)
  • With increased Westward expansion, geography again grew in significance to the general public as well as national growth. However, universities continued to reject geography as an area of study. It was left as a subject only to be studied by K-12 students.
  • In 1843, Horace Mann (Sec. of Ed. in Massachusets) wrote: "the children were [first] initiated into the ideas of space, without which we can know no more of geography than we can of history without the idea of time, [beginning] with objects perfectly familiar to the child-the schoolhouse with the grounds around it, the home with its yards or gardens, and the street leading from one to the other" (Dahmann, 2003). Mann required teachers institutes to teach geography to all educators.
  • Geography recieved significant prominence in public schools during this period--especially throughout the Civil War.

The Golden Era (1901-1960)
  • Darwin's theory of evolution led to many theories of environmental determinism (an inherently geographic concept). Therefore, in the decades following Darwin's work, geography boomed in K-12 schools as well as universities. The Ivy League schools brought back their geography departments.
  • Environmental determinism and social Darwinism became a very popular subject in geography throughout WWI and WW2. "American geographers delved into researching the causes of their homeland's success" (Paul, 2011, p. 10).
  • From 1890-1930: "physical geography came to be contained within the General Science curriculum" (Jenness, 1990, 223)
  • This new push for geography was actually a very bad thing in the long run. Geographers in the early 20th century were frequently doing work associated with social Darwinistic ideas, often justifying notions of racial purity and even eugenics. This misguided path of prominent geographers gave geography a bad name as environmental determinism became unpopular in the 40's and 50's.
  • By the 1950's, social Darwinism was universally criticized, and geography was unfortunately tied up in that criticism.
  • A curriculum review by the National Education Association in 1911 concluded that the social aspects of geography could be lumped into the umbrella topic, social studies. (Libbee and Stoltman, 1988; Mahony, 1988) Academic geographers had the opportunity to help define the social studies curriculum, but because many were aligned with the physical side of the discipline they would not recognize geography as part of the social studies. This allowed non-geographers, often historians, to define the geography portion of the new, integrated subject. (Libbee and Stoltman, 1988)


The Collapse (1961-2000)
  • Since social studies teachers typically had no geography background, geographic concepts were rarely included in social studies classrooms. Geography was not given the the emphasis that history or other social sciences.
  • "the chronological approach inherent to history wins out over the spatial or geographical approach." (Mayo, 1965)
  • The push for testing (and the lack of emphasis on social studies in those tests) also contributed to a decline in geographic emphasis.
  • Teachers (especially primary and middle school) rarely have taken any courses in geography.
  • "The separation between school geography and the very small...university field, together with the failure of geography to command a course slot at the high school level, meant that geography in the schools continued to be shadowy: sometimes a handmaiden to history, always an important dimension of early elementary instruction, a vague though interesting presence in the middle school...place-finding, map-reading, world-orienting subject matter that bears little direct relationship to the disciplinary field, in the way that HIstory of Government or Economics does. This does not make it of intrinsically poor quality, but it does mean that it lacks a reliable academic base of support, or standard for definition. Students who enter the university are often surprised to find that geography is a department and a major there; from what they know of the subject in primary and middle school they do not think of it as having academic depth...Finally, when--as today--external demands arise for improvement in 'geographical literacy', the academic discipline can neither defend the school subject nor, given its long-enduring distance from schools, protest too haughtily that what the public conceives of as geographical competence is not necessarily the whole of the subjectmatter." (Jenness, 1990, 225-226).
  • The one bright spot in this dismal history of geography education was the High School Geography Project (HSGP) of the 1960s which began to develop geography materials specifically for the high schools. Unfortunately, since the HSGP instituted a new methodology that was "designed to engage students in analysis, evaluation, and problem-solving" rather than using the regional and rote memorization approach, "teachers were often threatened by it or did not understand it" and very few effective in-services were developed to support the HSGP materials. (Marran, 1992, p140) From that time until the late-1980s, geography curriculum developments were very limited and predominantly focussed on the college level. (Hill, 1989) With this type of geography environment, the logical "home" for GIS would seem to be quite unprepared to absorb and benefit from potential pedagogic and content enhancements available in GIS-based activities. In the 1980s, however, the trend of weak or nonexistent geography began to reverse, improving the likelihood that geography could serve as the logical entry point for GIS.

2001-Present
  • "The predominance of physical geography as the first college course, together with the fact that some states require physical geography as part of a Social Studies certification, is surely a factor in the finding that a good 40 percent of elementary teachers (virtually all of whom cover considerable geographical material) have little or no coursework in the field, and that teachers at higher levels believe that physical geography is really the center of the subjectmatter. School history teachers who have had any geography course work are much mjore likely to have had it in physical geography rather than economic or regional geography...Today, in a typical large and 'good' high school one might find a World Geography course at grade 9 or 10, still emphasizing 'skills' and area descriptions, together with an advanced course at grade 11 or 12--still emphasizing the same aspects. Little, anywhere, about economic and population geography, location theory, or ecological systems. And little, curiously, that stems from new techniques such as remote sensing, satellite observation, computer information systems, methods of mapping and representation--all things that ought to interest some high-school students, and could be of great value in other subject fields....One of the great strengths of Geography is that maps and related artifacts are beautiful. The new high-altitude photographs, with high resolving power over large terrains, are not only beautiful as pictorial representations..." (229)
  • September 11, the invasions of Afghanistan and and Iraq, and the 2011 Arab revolutions in the Middle East have prompted much discussion about geography.
  • Ambrose Bierce: "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography"