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There Be Dragons

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We have been a world power with little knowledge of other countries and their cultures—and that won’t change when states ignore geography education.

November 16 through 22 of this year (and every year) was Geography Awareness Week. There aren’t many individuals left in Idaho that are aware of this. Idaho is one of only two states no longer a member of the National Geographic Alliances. “What is that?” you might ask.  

In 1986, seeing a major gap in geography knowledge and education, the National Geographic Society began a network of Alliances with classroom teachers, universities, and citizens across the United States. The Society’s philosophy was “Train the Teachers,” who would in turn teach and train their students, their friends and their co-workers. They believed that to truly understand our world, you must educate the population.

The Geographic Alliances provided educational opportunities for individuals who wouldn’t have had them otherwise.  The amount of money the National Geographic Society invested in this project, without profit, has to be phenomenal at this date, 22 years later. Eventually, the National Geographic Society tried to partially phase out of the financial end, hoping that government and non-profit organizations would shoulder some of the financial responsibility. That is when Idaho began slipping, and Washington and Montana struggled to keep their organizations together. Some states were able to receive generous endowments, which to this date have provided for offices and organization of their Alliances.

Gratefully, I was introduced to the Geography Alliances through the University of Idaho at their Coeur d’Alene campus in 1994. I commuted to the University from my home in Heron, Montana, graduating in 1995. That year I was fortunately employed in Montana and immediately joined the Montana Geographic Alliance. I have been an active member since, and recently represented Montana at the National Conference on Geography Education in Michigan.

Having missed Idaho’s representation last year in D. C., I anxiously went down the list of participants this year. My heart did a little flip when I saw my neighbors to the west were again missing. Oregon and Washington were only represented by small contingents. California had at least four representatives; I was representing Montana, a big state and just one little person. However, Idaho was conspicuously absent from the rolls. How did this happen?  

I attempted, sometimes clumsily, to find answers. I called and also e-mailed the University of Idaho at their Moscow campus. Several people there were more than courteous and interested in my inquiry. All three had PhDs but didn’t let that get in the way of a good conversation.  The Department of Geography in Idaho was a little distressed, to say the least, when I informed them they were missing from the National Conferences. They started scrambling and I am confident, within a reasonable time, their Alliance will again be up and running. That is, “if they can find the money.”

The United States rating in geographic literacy, according to a Roper Poll, has dropped globally to 18th place. How did this happen, when we are basically a nation of immigrants? We can’t even find where our families came from on a map! With the exception of Native Americans, everyone reading this has an immigrant background. “Thinking outside the box” is an old cliché recently repopularized to get people to problem solve and use their creative initiative. However, current residents in the U.S. are the box when it comes to geographic knowledge. We have existed, for the most part in the last 60 years, as a world power with little knowledge of other people’s countries and cultures outside our own borders. We are, tragically, the boxes of our own construction.

Now we have had a change of the guard, so to speak, a change in our own government. The eternal optimist, I can only hope for the good; however the bills for geography education continue to languish on the national Senate and House floors.  They were introduced in 2007 but to date there has been no action. They are House Bill #1228 and Senate Bill #727. Both are non-partisan bills, pro-education and have nothing but good vibrations. No Child Left Behind forgot, or left behind, funding for geography. It was the only discipline they “forgot.” However, to date, neither bill has been sponsored by Montana or Idaho’s Senators and Representatives. It appears our legislators “couldn’t find their way” to help fund this critical discipline.

But the bigger question is why geography has hit the skids clear across the U.S. or, as my son says, “been dropped to the gutter and kicked against the curb.”  I could be eloquent and quote J. William Fulbright about the eventuality of nations living in peace, or I could sum it up succinctly and say if you feel the full pulse of a culture you instinctively and automatically respect that culture, including their colorful differences.  

It is a simple equation. Geography is more than simple map reading. It is the learning of cultures and the rich textures of the human race. Knowledge promotes respect, which equals understanding and subsequent peace. It is not, as the bumper sticker I saw years ago said, visiting exotic people and killing exotic people.  

If you want to put Idaho back on the Alliance Maps contact your Department of Geography at U of I in Moscow. Log onto the My Wonderful World website (www.mywonderfulworld.com)and sign on letting your legislators know it’s important to pass these bills. Go to www.nationalgeographic.com/ geographyaction  to learn more what geography is. Take off geography’s Cinderella shroud and dress it up as the princess it should be.

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Kathleen Huntley

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