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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lobbying for Geo Ed: Doomed by Geography's Nature?

It's been tough to lobby for geography education at any level. And, the results have not been heartening. Harvard tossed the degree in 1948 and my own college (U Chicago) shuttered its department (in favor of a committee) in 1986. This year energy is behind a bipartisan bill in Congress to fund K-12 geography education. It was first introduced in 2005 and has gone nowhere through the years, hence its reintroduction again and again.

To be sure, some of us in the field have a hard time giving an elevator pitch for geography. The good news is that a variety of organizations have gathered data to help us. They include the Dept. of Labor, the Association of American Geographers, the Geospatial Information and Technology Association among others. One challenge I find as I read through the supporting documents is a dichotomy that may set these efforts up to fail. It's the simple fact that geography is identified as both social and physical science. Now, those "inside" geography are typically fine with this situation. We happily point to human and physical geography and the art and algorithms behind hand drawn and computer created data visualization. Many would argue the mix makes geography synergistic, unique and vital.

But how does that play out in lobbying (aka "marketing") geography? Not so well I fear. The latest press release from the AAG quotes several former U.S. secretaries of state about the value of geography. Said Madeleine Albright, "Young Americans with an understanding of peoples, places, and cultures have a clear advantage in today’s rapidly-changing global economy..." That suggests that geography is a social science. In the same release, the AAG aims to convince the administration "to include geography education as part of its proposals for improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education." That suggests geography is a physical science.

As someone in the field, I have no issue with this potential confusion. But, as someone who considers herself an amateur when it comes to marketing, I feel this confusion could cloud the issue and weaken, not strengthen, the case for geography. If the response to the AAG's well-meaning effort is "These folks don't even know what they are talking about!" the lobbying effort may stop in its tracks.

What to do? It may be in the best interest of those lobbying for those federal dollars not to fully abandon one or the other of the natures of geography, but rather to focus like a laser on one or the other for the purpose of marketing. Which one? My gut says that right now STEM is buzzier so I'd lean that way. However, it really doesn't matter. I think a single focused message will take this effort further than trying to make geography all things to all people, even if in reality, it is just that.