Geographic Awakening

This week is Geography Awareness Week, a whole week dedicated to the study and understanding of our world through a geographic lens. It was established by presidential proclamation in 1987 (pop quiz: who was president in 1987?) in order to promote geographic education in our classrooms and in our lives at large.

Of course, the fact that we have to designate a specific week for the study of geography is a saddening fact. Geography just doesn’t exist explicitly in schools anymore, at any level. Yes, including universities. A large part of the problem is that there isn’t a clear understanding among the general population of what geography actually is. When I tell people I was a geography major, they assume my program involved learning the names and locations of the world’s capital cities and hand drawing maps with colored pencils. Before I took my first geography class at the University of Oregon, I thought much the same thing.

One of the classes I was fortunate enough to take at UO was called Human Geographic Thought, a ten week walk through the history of geography, how it became a field of study, and contributions of major geographers over time. One of the textbooks for the class was Modern Geographical Thought by Richard Peet, a text that traces the history of geography and juxtaposes it against sociological and philosophical changes and advancements over time, illustrating how geography really is an interdisciplinary science that affects more aspects of our daily lives than anyone actively considers.

In the book’s introduction, Peet provides an excellent definition of the field of geography:

Geography is the study of relations between society and the natural environment. Geography looks at how society shapes, alters, and increasingly transforms the natural environment, creating humanized forms from stretches of pristine nature, and then sedimenting layers of socialization one within the other, one on top of the other, until a complex natural-social landscape results. Geography also looks at how nature conditions society, in some original sense of creating the people and raw materials which social forces “work up” into culture, and in an ongoing sense of placing limits and offering material potentials for social processes like economic development. The “relation” between society and nature is thus an entire system, a complex of interrelations. What was once a causal relationship mainly in one direction (the formation of humanity during natural evolution) becomes an equally causal interrelationship in the reverse direction (social evolution alters the “natural” environment). In this way, human activity continually remakes its natural context — nature comes to be socially constructed, in the sense both of social and economic forces remaking landscapes, and of the intervention of ideas and discourses. Understanding this system of relations requires that geographers be sophisticated natural and social scientists, find ways of combining the two, know the methods and be excited by the insights of both aspects of knowledge. Thus, the synthetic core of geography is a study of nature-society interrelations.

Geography is the study of people, place, and how they interact with each other, how they affect each other. It affects everyone and everything, by definition. It is part of so many fields of study, not usually in name, but always in practice. So let’s venture to make every week geography awareness week. Let’s consider our place in the world, how our actions affect that place and how that place affects our actions. Let’s teach and learn geography based on its true definition: not by memorizing state capitals, but understanding why the capital is where it is in the first place. Once we realize that geography really is all around us, we can make better decisions based on this new understanding of our world.