Danny Edelson is Vice-President of Education for National Geographic.
November 5, 2008
Dear Senator Obama,
Like so many Americans, I am filled with hope this morning. One of the many reasons is your belief in the importance of taking the interconnectedness of Americans—to each other, to the other peoples of the world, and to the environment—into account when you make decisions.
So many of the challenges we face in today’s world are the result of our failure to recognize this interconnectedness when we make decisions as individuals or as a nation. The growth of Anti-American sentiment abroad in recent decades, this year’s global food shortages, human-induced global warming, and the international credit crunch of the last quarter are all examples of how our interconnectedness magnifies the impact of decisions that individuals, businesses, and governments make.
From what you have said on the campaign trail, I am confident that your administration will set a new standard for taking this interconnectedness into account in decision-making. But I hope that you will not stop there. I hope that you will make sure that learning about this interconnectedness and how to account for it in decision-making will be part of the education that every student in America receives.
The U.S. has done a dismal job of educating our young people about the world and the complex interdependencies that link us to each other and to the natural resources and ecosystems that sustain us.
Why has this happened? Because the U.S. has abandoned geographic education in favor of other priorities. Of course, for most of us, the phrase “geographic education” evokes an image of map-coloring and memorization of country locations, an image that has nothing to do with understanding interconnectedness.
The reality is that the image of geographic education we formed in our school days could not be farther from the reality of modern geography. The essence of modern geography is, in fact, interconnectedness.
Modern geography is the study of systems on Earth and how they interact. These include social systems like countries and markets, cultural systems like religions and languages, ecological systems like food webs and habitats, and physical systems like oceans and the atmosphere. Other disciplines study these systems as well, but what makes geography uniquely important is that it focuses on how these systems connect places to each other, so that geographic education teaches us how causes in one place lead to effects in others.
Modern geography teaches us how each individual’s decisions about energy use could contribute to a chain of causality that, through the intermediate effect of climate change, could lead to a precipitous rise in sea-levels and the loss of hundreds of millions of homes around the world over the course of a century.
Geography also teaches us how the decision to convert agricultural land in Illinois to the production of ethanol could contribute to food shortages in Africa and Southeast Asia within a year. Maybe most important, it teaches us how differences in the placement of public transport, grocery stores, and banks can make the difference between a residential area of alienated and isolated residents and a community with a sense of shared responsibility.
Geographic education can take place in lots of settings. It is not limited to courses with the word “geography” in the title. Geographic learning should be an important component of courses in history, civics, economics, culture, earth science, environmental science, and ecology. However, all of these subjects have suffered from inattention in recent years as well, as our educational system has focused on an increasingly narrow range of academic subjects.
For my entire professional career—first as a professor of education now as National Geographic’s point person for education— I have pursued the mission of educating America’s young people about their world. During that time, geographic education has never even registered on the national educational reform agenda.
For the first time in my career, I see the possibility that an administration will take up the cause of geographic education. I see that possibility because I can see so clearly how creating a geographically literate populace will help you to achieve the economic stability, peaceful foreign relations, and environmental sustainability that you envision for our country.
Mr. President-Elect, no one could ever doubt your commitment to education. I share your belief in the importance of high-quality education for all, both for individual advancement and national economic competitiveness. I hope your administration will also recognize the value of high-quality geographic education as a critical strategy to support the implementation and maintenance of the economic, environmental, and foreign policy reforms we will need for our long-term well-being.
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