WASHINGTON — The nation's geographers say it's time to return their science — typically associated with maps and state capitals — to its rightful place in American classrooms. Once in place, it could become the key to a new economy or even an end to international conflict.
First, their leaders say, geographers have to learn to speak up in public.
"They should probably reach out more," said Christopher Shearer, associate executive director of the National Geographic Education Foundation. "If you see these connections, and yet no one recognizes the value of the discipline, I think you're inclined to keep your own counsel a little bit."
The foundation and the American Association of Geographers are banding together to push the geographers to get out of their classrooms and lobby their congressmen and local PTAs to support geography education.
The problem: Geography, it would seem, isn't as cool as it used to be.
Teachers often relegate the subject to a unit of a social studies class; university administrators have gutted departments due to a lack of student interest. Even worse, the Obama administration's 41-page blueprint for education reform makes no mention of geography, but names math, language arts, financial literacy and a slew of other disciplines from the computer age.
It's all been enough to drag this traditionally quiet, studious group into the arena of congressional politics, Shearer said. He's now pushing proposals in the House of Representatives and Senate to create a $15 million fund to support geography education.
Congressmen "simply don't know how important it is," said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., one of the House measure's co-sponsors. "It's the glue that ties a well-rounded, 21st century education together."
Walz, a high school geography teacher in his home state, said he wants to put the subject on par with math and reading in lawmakers' education agenda.
He gave examples such as deciphering world trade, dividing natural resources in the Middle East or even preventing tragedies such as the Rwandan genocide as real possibilities if people had a better understanding of the globe's surface and its cultures.
Despite those lofty possibilities, however, his bill has been awaiting action in the House Education and Labor Committee for at least a year. It has yet to get a hearing.
The Education Department had no immediate comment on the proposal Thursday.
Sarah Witham Bednarz, an associate dean at Texas A&M University's College of Geosciences, said she's even willing to get Congress' attention by take a cue from Thursday's raucous anti-tax Tea Party demonstrations.
"Is it time that we organize G-parties?" asked Bednarz, who oversees 13 undergraduates in a school of 48,000. "We could do it on Earth Day."
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Yadron, a graduate student in journalism from Chicago, covers education.)
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