Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Moving past ITT Tech

If you don't know much about the debate surrounding education reform, then you may not know about the struggle between vocational education and holistic education... or maybe you know more about education reform than you thought.

So here's the drift. Some people see school as a way of training people to be good workers. Others prefer to see it as a way of training people to be good people. But, these aren't just ways of "seeing" the institution of education; whichever view you tend to ascribe to usually informs the way you believe education ought to be structured.

As John Taylor Gatto writes in The Underground History of American Education, our current education system is a hold-over from a time when it was important for schools to turn out graduates who would make excellent factory workers. Rote memorization, mundane worksheets, coloring inside the lines, and other forms of busy work are a perfect preparation for the incessant routine of factory life. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you'd rather our economy was based on something real rather than the giant casino we call the "stock market"), this sort of training is becoming less and less applicable to the needs of U.S. companies. Further, this sort of education was never good at training people to be thoughtful citizens.

But I stray from my point.

I work at the National Geographic Society. Known mostly for its magazine, National Geographic is much more than the publisher of a periodical. I work in the Education portion of NGS, and this week is Geography Awareness Week. Hence, this blog post is dedicated to the most ignored social studies subject (except maybe civics).

Geography hasn't always been relegated to simply coloring maps of France while the teacher drones on about how important the Rhone River is (before mercifully switching to World War I history and trench warfare). Up until the middle of the 19th Century, geography actually enjoyed equal teaching time in classrooms as the other social studies subjects. History, civics, economics, and geography were all allotted equal time.

In the middle of last century, education folks decided that social studies ought to be taught as an interdisciplinary range of topics rather than separate classes. Since they were all closely interrelated, this seemed logical enough and the reformers moved forward.

Most everyone in the social studies disciplines was enthusiastic about switching to a more interdisciplinary approach. However, those in the history wing of social studies were more hesitant. So, while most social studies folk lost the focus of their specific disciplines, history professors and students maintained theirs. To make a long story short, the under-emphasis of the other disciplines led to them taking a backseat to history, which had never abandoned its focus. This is why history is a much more significant subject in today's schools.

This story explains the present state of social studies education. I want to make the point that geography is much more important than we give it credit for.

I was talking to Daniel Edelson (the head of Education at National Geographic) about the challenges of propagating geography education. Frankly, the most significant challenge to increasing the appreciation for geography is the limited definition that leaps into people's minds when you mention "geography."

When people think of geography, most envision maps. It's really difficult to explain to someone living in the 21st Century that being good at  map reading is integral to their existence as a human being. Now, National Geographic is famous for their maps and they do a crackerjack job at making maps, but geography is so much more than maps.

Edelson has coined the term "geo-literacy" to encompass more holistic geographic thinking. Essentially, geo-literacy can be broken up into three components:

1. Geosystems understanding: A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the creation, movement, and transformation of materials in human and natural systems.

2.Geographic reasoning: A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the characteristics of a location and its connections to other locations.

3. Systematic decision-making: A geo-literate individual is able to articulate decision-making criteria, project outcomes of alternatives, and evaluate those outcomes in terms of the established criteria.

While it can be argued that "geo-literacy" is more expansive than the discipline of geography, I think it's fair to say that someone who has studied geography and is competent in the subject could be classified as a geo-literate individual.

Geography is more than merely the study of cartography, it's also the study of the interconnectedness of the material world. The Story of Stuff is a great example of the kinds of things geographers study (my fellow interns even claim that geography is the study of "everything," though I caulk this up to the typical hubris everyone has about their own discipline.) When it comes down to it, geography is a vital part of establishing the kind of materialism that I talk about on this blog.

The challenge moving forward is to inspire an education system that demands each discipline be vocationally applicable to take geography more seriously. If you haven't guessed from our brief discussion about vocational vs. holistic education at the beginning of this post, vocational education currently dominates.

I think it's fairly clear why someone ought to study geography if they want to be a good citizen or consumer, but the real question in our economy is whether studying geography will make you any money. Rumor at Eastern Washington University has it that majoring in geography will virtually ensure successful job placement post-graduation. However, because I reject the paradigm of our education system being glorified vocational school (and because I'm nearing my word limit), I'm going to decline to answer the question.

If there's one thing the 2010 Election taught me, it's that unswerving dedication to ideology will conquer compromise... at least at the polls... at least in the short-term...


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