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date: 19 March 2018

The Role of Geographic Education in International Studies

Summary and Keywords

Geography has been a formal academic discipline in the United States since the early twentieth century. During the first six or so decades of this period, geographic education was dominated by the legacies of environmental determinism and orientalism. These concepts were representative of a Eurocentric worldview that showed contempt for non-Western cultures and economies, treating “natives” of non-Western cultures as backward, ignorant, and lazy. Presentation of material about non-Western areas of the world in geography textbooks and publications has been characterized by assumptions of Western cultural superiority. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries saw geographic education undergo considerable transition, as geographers pay more and more attention to perspectives like dependency theory and world system theory. Renewed interest in geographic education coincided with the revival of geography as an intellectual pursuit and recognition of the importance of place in the world economy and in international relations, along with the explosive growth of information made possible by television, the internet, and other technologies. More importantly, the orientalist biases that have historically characterized geographic education in the United States and other Western countries have gradually disappeared. It has been argued that improved geographic education will help overcome geographic illiteracy and promote public awareness of international relations, but such awareness must be intertwined with the changing role of educational institutions in managing information, and to recognition of the changing relationships between education and information.

Keywords: geographic education, environmental determinism, orientalism, geography, dependency theory, world system theory, place, international relations, information, geographic illiteracy


A recent survey about Americans’ knowledge of geography concluded that “most young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 demonstrate a limited understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders, and they place insufficient importance on the basic geographic skills that might enhance their knowledge” (Roper Public Affairs 2006:6). Geographers and geography teachers in the United States and other countries have often pointed to results of surveys such as these as evidence supporting the need for increased emphasis on geography in educational programs at the elementary, secondary, and university levels. Calls for upgrading geographic education are often associated with arguments that more and better geographic training will not only increase students’ knowledge of geography, but also that such knowledge will promote international awareness and understanding. This argument implies that more and better geographic education will promote improved international relations.

Can improved geographic education overcome geographic illiteracy? If students were educated better about world geography, would they have a better understanding of international relations, issues, problems, and crises? The purpose of this paper is to investigate this question from both a historical and a contemporary perspective. Historically, geographic education in the United States and other Western countries was characterized by what might be referred to as an “orientalist” bias. Presentation of material about non-Western areas of the world in geography textbooks and publications has been characterized by assumptions of Western cultural superiority. Western progress and achievements were contrasted with non-Western stagnation, ignorance, and backwardness. Given this historical context, we examine contemporary geographic education, including examination of the internet and other technologies that are impacting citizens’ knowledge of the world around them inside and outside of the classroom.

Geographic Illiteracy in the United States and Elsewhere

In 2006, the National Geographic Society conducted a survey of young American adults between the ages of 18 and 24. The purpose of this survey was to assess the respondents’ levels of geographic knowledge and awareness. Results of the survey indicated that misconceptions about geography were widespread. For example, three-quarters of survey respondents believed that English, rather than Mandarin Chinese, is the most widely spoken language in the world. Less than 40 percent knew that the population of China is more than four times greater than the population of the United States. Less than half knew that Sudan is located in Africa, or that Sri Lanka is located in Asia. Despite the fact that Iraq and Saudi Arabia are frequently in the news, more than 60 percent of survey respondents could not locate these countries on maps of the Middle East. The report concluded that “young people in the United States – the most recent graduates of our educational system – are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Far too many lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events” (Roper Public Affairs 2006:7).

Geographic illiteracy is by no means limited to the United States, although Americans have consistently demonstrated less knowledge of the world than have residents of other countries. In 2002, a similar survey was conducted among young adults aged 18 through 24 in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and Japan (Roper Public Affairs 2002). The average young American adult scored 23 of a possible 56 points on the survey. In contrast, the average Swedish respondent scored 40 out of 56 followed by Germany and Italy with an average of 38 each; only Mexico, with 21, reported a lower average than the United States.

Concern about geographic illiteracy among Americans is by no means new. Educators have worried about the lack of geographic understanding among Americans for many years. In 1951, the New York Times completed a survey of 4,752 students in colleges and universities throughout the United States. The researchers found that most students could not estimate accurately the population of the United States or Canada. Less than one percent could identify and give the approximate populations of the five largest cities in the US at that time. The report of the survey concluded that “The lack of knowledge of even fundamental aspects of American life is appalling, the present survey shows. An analysis of the thirty-two questions asked in the test indicates that both world and American geography have been bypassed by the vast majority of our students” (Fine 1951:334).

Twenty years earlier, George J. Miller (after whom the National Council for Geographic Education would name its lifetime achievement award) wrote that “Our high school graduates go out essentially ignorant of the geography of the world….Lack of adequate geographic training in our junior and senior high schools is a deplorable situation that may be corrected if the will to do so is present” (Miller 1932:124). As did many other geographic education specialists over the years, Miller regarded improved geographic education as a key to improving international relations. He wrote, “One of the greatest handicaps to peaceful world relations is misunderstanding – ignorance of others and a lack of appreciation of their struggles” (1932:127). From Miller’s time to the present day, prominent geographers have seen improved geographic education, from elementary school through the university level, as a means by which geographic illiteracy can be overcome.

Orientalism and Geographic Education

Miller and other leading geographers throughout the twentieth century frequently argued for more geographic education. At the time that Miller wrote, however, would more geographic education have addressed the issues of geographic illiteracy that Miller and others lamented? Examination of material used in teaching geography throughout much of the twentieth century at both the college and the precollege level reveals pro-Western biases and disdain for non-Western cultures and peoples that educators did not begin to address until the late twentieth century. Such biases could hardly have promoted understanding of other cultures or of the struggles that Miller described. Textbooks and other writings by prominent geographers routinely contrasted Europe and North America, which were inhabited by “civilized” and “advanced” people, and the non-Western parts of the world, where “backward” people lived.

Comparisons between Western civilization and non-Western ignorance in twentieth-century American geography textbooks were informed by the philosophy of environmental determinism, which dominated American human geography during the early twentieth century. Environmental determinism posited that climate and other characteristics of the physical environment determine the culture of a region’s inhabitants. Ellsworth Huntington, who was a strong proponent of environmental determinism, argued that temperate climates such as those found in much of Europe and North America promoted the growth of civilization, whereas the hot climates of the tropics prevented civilization from developing. He wrote that “It is generally agreed that the native races within the tropics are dull in thought and slow in action” (Huntington 1915:35).

Huntington’s ideas soon found their way into textbooks. In 1920, Huntington and Sumner W. Cushing published Principles of Human Geography, a leading university-level textbook. In this book, Huntington and Cushing wrote, “The well-known contrast between the energetic people of the temperate zone and the lazy inhabitants of the tropics is due to climate. It is impossible for a people to advance rapidly in civilization when handicapped by an enervating tropical climate, and even the climate of intermediate regions like Persia tends to keep people backward” (Huntington and Cushing 1920:248). They continued, “The agreement between regions of stimulating climate and high civilization means that the health and energy imparted by such a climate are among the conditions necessary for progress” (Huntington and Cushing 1920:257). Contrasting energetic, hard-working Europeans with residents of the tropics, they wrote that, “The Fiji Islander…lives in a climate where a few breadfruit trees or coconut palms furnish food for himself and his family without work. This is one reason why he is lazy and effeminate and spends most of his time sitting idly at home” (Huntington and Cushing 1920:209).

Although academic geographers had rejected the philosophy of environmental determinism by the 1920s (James and Martin 1981), environmental determinism continued to influence textbooks and other writings used by geography students for several decades thereafter. “Natives” of non-Western countries were portrayed as constrained by unfavorable environmental conditions and therefore naive, ignorant, superstitious, stupid, and lazy. Yet Westerners living in tropical climates were regarded as “civilized” relative to indigenous “natives.” Differences between Westerners and non-Westerners living in tropical climates were explained on the basis of cultural superiority as well as environmental factors. For example, in one textbook Whitbeck and Finch (1924) compared Mexicans of Native American ancestry with Mexicans of European ancestry. They wrote that “The Indians, if not aroused, are a docile, ease-loving, unambitious people, satisfied with a mud hut, corn bread (tortillas) and beans and petty gambling for excitement” (Whitbeck and Finch 1924:269). In contrast, “The white minority include people of highest refinement and intelligence” (p. 269).

Such comparisons were often accompanied by assertions that European and American influence was needed. The high population density of Java relative to other tropical rainforest environments was attributed in one textbook to “the peace, sanitation, encouragement and scientific methods brought by the Dutch” (White and Renner 1957:58–9). European and American colonial rule was often portrayed favorably, since local residents were seen as unable to govern themselves. Huntington and Cushing (1920:406) wrote that “Our purpose as practiced in the Philippines and Puerto Rico is to treat the colonies as good parents treat their children…We think that they cannot be trusted to manage their own government until they have learned self-control, just as a parent would not leave a six-year-old child to play with a razor” (1920:406). They also stated that “the more tropical portions of South America would today be better governed, more prosperous, and more peaceful than at present if they were held by an enlightened colonial power such as Britain” (1920:387). Cutshall (1952:33) stated that “even the educated Filipino, in many instances, prefers to follow rather than lead. He is perfectly content to let someone think for him when major decisions are to be made.”

While Westerners were expected to provide thought, guidance, and leadership, “natives” were expected to perform manual work. Whitbeck and Finch (1924:512) wrote, “White men cannot and will not do manual labor to any extent in the tropics. If work is done, the colored man must do it, and he is very reluctant to change his habit of life.” Some writers claimed that indigenous people lacked the intelligence or ambition to grasp new technologies. In discussing plantation agriculture in South America and Africa, for example, Huntington and Cushing (1920:290) wrote that “Machinery is introduced, and the natives are taught to use it. At first they are rarely competent for any but the simplest tasks. Little by little, however, they acquire skill and industry” (1920:290). Even after World War II, “natives” were portrayed in European and American geographic scholarship as lazy and unambitious. Describing African farm workers in South Africa, Peattie (1950:58) wrote, “Where a bonus system is introduced, it often fails because of native apathy. A native will frequently prefer to work for a farmer who pays less if the work is easier.”

In some textbooks, statements of this sort were interspersed with arguments in favor of eugenics, or “scientific” efforts to “improve” the human condition by encouraging intelligent parents to have more children. Some writers expressed concern that high birthrates in less developed countries relative to those in the West would result in a deterioration of civilization, especially as improved medical care and public health reduced death rates. In one college textbook on the geography of the Americas, J. Russell Smith discussed efforts by Western-funded foundations to control and eradicate tropical diseases such as malaria. He wrote,

As the new knowledge of scientific medicine and prevention of disease is applied to the peoples of the tropical countries it will tend to accelerate an increase of population and cause us to wonder where the surplus will go. Has not the time come for science to form some new concept with regard to human quality? Thus far it has done wonders to increase the quantity of humanity. The Rockefeller Foundation with its war on tropic diseases might well be called the greatest negro breeder of all history”

(Smith 1925:707, emphasis in original).

Views of non-Western societies such as these were presented to generations of American students in geography textbooks and learning materials published in the early to mid-twentieth century. Edward Said (1978) argued that much scholarship concerning colonialism was undertaken from a Western perspective that implies the cultural superiority of Western institutions, thereby creating dichotomies between West and East and thereby “othering” non-Western societies and institutions. Describing this tendency as “orientalism,” Said argued that “the Orient” was an “othering” construction of the West. This construction allowed Europeans and Americans to contrast Western civilization, progress, and enlightenment with non-Western backwardness, barbarism, and despotism. These dichotomies were in turn used to justify Western colonialism, because Western science, technology, and “civilized” behavior were necessary for the Orient to develop in “proper” fashion, and without Western influence the East would remain stagnant and backward.

Said’s analysis of orientalism was applied primarily to Western studies of colonialism in the Middle East. In a larger sense, however, the concept of orientalism can be applied to Western writing about non-Western cultures throughout the world, or more generally to contrasts between developed and less developed countries in geographic writings. In geography textbooks, Americans and Europeans were described as civilized and progressive. Non-Westerners, on the other hand, were described routinely as “savages,” “natives,” or “primitive” people who could hope to become “civilized” only if guided firmly by Westerners. “Othering” statements such as those quoted above routinely found their way into geography textbooks and teaching materials studied by generations of American elementary school, secondary school, and college students.

The othering of non-Western people in Western educational institutions was not limited to geography. Throughout the educational curriculum, American and European children were taught routinely about the superiority of Western culture and values. In the United States, emphasis on Western cultural superiority was associated with the development of American public education as the United States evolved from an agricultural to an industrial to a postindustrial society. Education is the institution by which a culture’s values, norms, and ideas are transmitted to future generations. Because these values are contested, the educational process and the content of educational materials are politicized. Those who control the provision of education can control curricula, thereby impacting what is taught to rising generations.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, children from wealthy families were educated at home, by tutors, or in private academies. Children of the working class generally received little or no formal education. This situation began to change in the early nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution came to the United States and governments began to establish what were known as common schools. As society began to industrialize, employers recognized that industrial workers needed to know how to read, write, and calculate. By the time of the Civil War, most states had enacted laws establishing free, tax-supported public schools (Cubberley 1934). In these common schools, children of the rich and the poor would be educated together (except in the South, where children in common schools were separated on the basis of race until the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954). The philosophy of the common school movement was that all children, regardless of the social class of their parents, would not only be given instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and other basic skills needed to thrive in the workplace, but would also be taught a common ideological and moral perspective. Thus, a purpose of common schools was to “help forge a social bond by providing common moral and political understandings to otherwise different individuals and groups” (Paris 1995:62).

American common schools were controlled by locally elected boards and authorities during the nineteenth century. Reform of public schooling, however, was an important priority of the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century (Tyack 1974). The Progressives saw locally controlled public education as archaic and outmoded. The Progressives promoted reforms intended to remove politics from public schooling, leaving control in the hands of trained experts who regarded themselves as above politics. These reformers “shared a common faith in ‘educational science’ and in lifting education ‘above politics’ so that experts could make the crucial decisions” (Tyack and Cuban 1995:17).

The supposedly nonpolitical ideology associated with common schools “emphasized the need for public obedience rather than public participation” (Reynolds and Shelley 1990:113). Even after the Progressives’ reforms took effect, American public education remained Eurocentric. For example, the American Revolution was regarded as a “conservative” movement led by men of wealth and property who used their positions to promote law, order, and stability in American society (Elson 1964). Slavery, genocide, colonialism, destruction of indigenous cultures, environmental degradation, and other major social problems were ignored or downplayed in the ideology taught in common schools, not only in geography but in other aspects of the curriculum. Not until the 1960s was this orthodoxy challenged seriously.

The Revival of Geographic Literacy

In summary, geographic education in the United States during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century was dominated by the legacies of environmental determinism and orientalism. These concepts typified a Eurocentric worldview that “othered” non-Western cultures throughout American education. Given the ideas pervaded American geography classrooms over much of the twentieth century, it is doubtful that more geographic education would have done much to reduce geographic illiteracy, or would have generated much appreciation for what George Miller had called the “struggles” of people in non-Western societies. How has this changed in recent years? To what extent have geography and geographic education changed, and have these changes meant that geographic education may play a more meaningful role in promoting improved international understanding in the years ahead? To address these questions, it is important to examine the changing role of geography as a discipline over the past century.

Geography emerged as a formal academic discipline in the United States during the early twentieth century. However, American geography “occupied a relatively marginal position in many of the colleges and universities where it was present” (Murphy 2007:122). During World War II, hundreds of American professional geographers provided military or civilian service to various government agencies associated with the Allied war effort, including the armed forces, the Department of State, the Department of War (now the Department of Defense), and the Central Intelligence Agency (James and Martin 1981). Although many of the geographers who had provided valuable service to the Allied war effort during World War II moved into the academy after the war ended, geography as an academic discipline and as a subject for study at both the precollege and college levels became even more marginalized.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, many elite private and public universities, including Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Stanford, Columbia, Northwestern, and Michigan, eliminated their geography departments and programs. Not only did Harvard eliminate its geography program in the 1940s, but its influential president, James B. Conant, argued that geography was not a serious subject for study at the university level (Smith 1987). Conant’s charges were critical to the marginalization of geography not only because of Harvard’s reputation as one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, but also because of Conant’s position of leadership in the reform of American public education during the 1940s and 1950s. At the elementary and secondary school levels, geography was often lumped with other disciplines into “social studies,” within which geography’s role was minimal.

Why did geography lose its influence within the post-World War II academy? After World War II ended and the Cold War began, the United States did not retreat into isolationism as it had done after World War I. Rather, the United States became more actively involved in foreign affairs through the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and other initiatives. However, this internationalism “was premised on the idea that American-style capitalism provided a template for an emerging global political economy that would render place differences increasingly irrelevant” (Murphy 2007:122). Geography, meanwhile, was perceived by many as a discipline concerned primarily with factual knowledge about places on the surface of the Earth. As Murphy (2007:123) pointed out, geography as an academic discipline was hindered by “the sense that geography had little to offer beyond the cataloguing of Earth facts or problematic generalizations concerning environment–human relations” (2007:123). Because differences between places were assumed to be disappearing, knowledge about place differences was seen as irrelevant and therefore not worth the attention of scholars or students.

As the 1940s and 1950s gave way to the end of the Cold War and the contemporary era of globalization, it became clear that differences between places were by no means irrelevant. Klak (2004) pointed out that the ratio of per capita income between residents of the richest country and those of the poorest country of the world more than doubled from 35:1 in 1950 to 72:1 in 1992. Understanding differences between places, and those factors responsible for the creation of these differences, became seen increasingly as critical to understanding the changing dynamics of the global economy. As Murphy (2007:129) put it, “the widespread sense that we live in a rapidly shrinking world with intensified connections between distant places feeds the view that geography matters.” Although the positions of individual countries and regions within the world economy ebb and flow, in general the world’s core countries, including the United States and the countries of western Europe, maintain military, economic, and political dominance over the remainder of the world. Geographers paid more and more attention to perspectives such as dependency theory and world system theory, which analyze the changing positions of states in the global economy on the basis of economic and cultural relationships between themselves and other societies across the Earth’s surface (Taylor 1985).

Recognition of the importance of place in a globalizing world and the revival of geography as an intellectual pursuit coincided with, and was associated with, renewed interest in geographic education. Geographic literacy became recognized as an important component of a well-rounded education. In 1994, the US Department of Education published a vision statement that included basic goals for American education (US Department of Education 1994). The statement included several goals. The third goal stated that “American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, arts, history, and geography” (US Department of Education 1994:7, emphasis added).

Even before the publication of the US Department of Education’s vision statement, efforts to improve the quality and importance of geographic education were under way. During the 1980s, the National Geographic Society developed a strong interest in improving geographic education in the United States. The Society provided considerable resources to improve the teaching of geography through the establishment of and providing financial support for Geographic Alliances in each state. Leaders of the Society worked with leaders of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the American Geographical Society, and the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) to create and promulgate national geography standards for use in K-12 education.

The National Geography Content Standards were published in 1994 in a volume entitled Geography for Life (National Geographic Society 1994). The Standards “are a specification of general educational outcomes and specific exit levels of achievement at three grade levels: 4, 8, and 12” (Downs 1994:176). The intent of the National Geography Content Standards was to operationalize the US Department of Education’s vision for geography as an essential component of knowledge needed by a wellinformed citizenry.

The geographers who developed the National Geography Content Standards were well aware of how and why geography and geographic education had been marginalized in earlier parts of the twentieth century. They recognized that geography was associated in the public mind with what Murphy called “cataloguing of Earth facts,” or knowledge of trivia – an image no doubt reinforced by numerous television quiz shows that awarded prizes to persons who could demonstrate knowledge of obscure facts about the Earth. They pointed out that “An isolated fact does not constitute geographic understanding. For example, to know that Mount Everest is the highest peak in the world is not understanding geography until that isolated fact is put into a variety of spatial contexts” (National Geographic Society 1994:21). The authors of Geography for Life were careful to emphasize the role of context and integrative thinking in the development of geographic knowledge. They wrote that “Knowing population growth rates is not sufficient unless that knowledge can be related to an understanding of the resource base – the distribution of arable land, climate patterns – and to the transportation system that moves food supplies to consumers, and so on” (1994:30). More generally, geographic literacy became recognized as more than superficial knowledge of facts about places.

The development and implementation of the Standards coincided with a significant shift in education associated with the transformation from industrial to postindustrial society. In examining the history of Western public education, Jordan (1996) argued that the basic philosophy of education shifted from an agricultural to an industrial to a postindustrial metaphor as Western society evolved from emphasis on agriculture to emphasis on industry to contemporary postindustrial society. He argued that nineteenth century education, which was provided at a time when a large majority of persons worked on farms, was based on an agricultural metaphor. This philosophy equated effective education to physical exercise. Students developed physical strength by exercising their muscles, and developed their mental strength by memorizing and reciting large quantities of information.

During the early twentieth century, emphasis on rote memorization was replaced by an industrial metaphor, which emphasized breaking down knowledge into small units. Students were taught “how things work,” and they were expected to apply this knowledge efficiently and accurately. Such an approach was consistent with the needs of a society in which many people worked in manufacturing, because the process of producing various goods was generally broken down into discrete, repetitive tasks.

Jordan argued that this industrial metaphor is being replaced by what he called a “communicative” metaphor that emphasizes “spaces and relations between things” (Jordan 1996:49). This emphasis “allows students and teachers to cope with the explosive increase in the volume of information characteristic of contemporary post-industrial society” (Shelley 1997:594). This shift from the industrial metaphor to the communicative metaphor coincided with recognition of the importance of places and differences between them.

The authors of Geography for Life paid considerable attention to this contextual approach to education in developing the Standards. They wrote, “All individuals need to have an understanding of geography, which means that they need to have an understanding of the spatial contexts of people, places, and environments on Earth” (National Geographic Society 1994:21). Such understanding was seen as important for both “intellectual” and “practical” reasons: “As the interconnectedness of the world accelerates, the practical need for geographic knowledge becomes more critical” (National Geographic Society 1994:24). As Roger Downs, who was one of the authors of the Standards Report stated, “Mastery of geography’s subject matter is interpreted as creating a geographically informed person, one who understands and appreciates the mosaic of interdependent worlds in which he or she lives” (Downs 1994:176).

Specific standards within Geography for Life addressed issues of colonialism, political conflict, ethnic identity, nationalism, and other questions that had been ignored or had been presented from a position of Western cultural imperialism in earlier geographic education. For example, Standard 11 deals with transportation systems and economic interdependence. According to this standard, students completing the eighth grade should be able to understand differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary economic activities, map flows of trade between the United States and other countries, examine the impacts of industrial relocation on local communities, “suggest reasons and consequences for countries that export mostly raw materials and import mostly fuels and manufactured goods” (National Geographic Society 1994:166), and understand the impacts of imperialism on economic activity. According to Standard 13, elementary school children should be able to “list agricultural products produced in the student’s region, identify where they are processed, and map how they are distributed” (National Geographic Society 1994:127) and to “describe and compare the ways in which people satisfy their basic needs and wants through the production of goods and services in different regions of the world” (National Geographic Society 1994:126).

Standard 13 refers to “how the forces of cooperation and conflict among people influence the division and control of Earth’s surface.” High school students are expected to know and understand “why and how cooperation and conflict are involved in shaping the distribution of social, political, and economic spaces on Earth at different scales” (National Geographic Society 1994:210). More specifically, students should be able to “explain how a country’s ambition to obtain markets and resources can cause fractures and disruptions in areas of the world that are targets of its ambition” (National Geographic Society 1994:211). In other words, Standard 13 emphasizes understanding about how colonialism has impacted indigenous peoples and cultures in colonized places. The discussion of Standard 13 includes the examples of French colonization of Southeast Asia and Italy’s expansion to the coast of Libya prior to World War II.

In summary, geographic education underwent considerable transition during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Materials emphasizing the cultural superiority of the West and the backwardness of non-Western cultures and peoples have been replaced by materials that illustrate the interconnectedness of the global economy. Emphasis on memorization of facts and recitation of details about places on Earth’s surface has been replaced by emphasis on understanding interconnections between places. These changes, as typified by the National Geography Standards, represent an approach to geographic education that is consistent with the transition of the United States to a postindustrial society.

Geographic Education and International Relations Today and in the Future

To what extent have the Standards and other changes impacted geographic education? Historically, as we have seen, geography was taught in school as a collection of facts to be memorized. During the twentieth century, knowledge of such collections of facts was seen as useless and therefore unworthy of serious scholarly attention. Geography’s revival in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century coincided with recognition of the importance of place in the world economy and in international relations.

The revival of geography as a discipline also coincided with the transition between industrial and postindustrial education. Emphasis on memorizing large quantities of information and “how things work” was replaced by a more contextual approach to learning, in which connections between people and places were emphasized. This contextual approach was recognized in the National Geography Standards. It is also evident in contemporary regional geography textbooks, many of which examine cultural and economic diversity in an era of increasing globalization. For example, in one frequently used college textbook Rowntree et al. (2008) described cultural conflicts in terms of “cultural collisions,” in which the forces of globalization collide with indigenous systems and values. They wrote, “Historically, colonialism was the most important force behind these cultural collisions; today, though, globalization in its varied forms is probably the major cause of cultural collision and change” (Rowntree et al. 2008:16). Writing about sub-Saharan Africa, they stated that “In the past outside observers often attributed Africa’s poverty to its environment….The explanations for African development now look much more to historical and institutional factors than to environmental circumstances” (Rowntree et al. 2008:178). These “historical and institutional factors” included the slave trade and colonialism, which enriched Europe and the Americas at the expense of Africa.

The contextual approach evident in textbooks by Rowntree et al. and others, along with the implementation of the National Geography Standards in the US education system, illustrates a fundamental shift in the orientation of textual material in geographic education. Orientalist statements dismissive of non-Western cultures have for the most part been eliminated from textbooks and other learning materials used in geography classrooms. In considering the future of geographic education, however, one must look beyond the walls of the classroom. Today, people have easy access to explosive levels of information about the world around them. Television and the internet have brought the world to the average person at a level of understanding and sophistication undreamed of even half a century ago. Because so much more information is easily available to students and others, the relationship between education and information has changed dramatically. Historically, education was considered with the transmission of information; today, its primary function is providing guidance in managing, processing, and interpreting the vast quantities of information that are readily available worldwide.

In part because of the explosive increase in information and the ease of its availability, formal education plays a very different role in the management and interpretation of information about the world than was the case in the past. The average American child spends much more time over the course of childhood watching television than he or she does in the formal school classroom. Even very young children are highly oriented to television, video games, the internet, and interactive media. A recent study indicated that 70 percent of American children aged four to six use computers, and more than half play video games. Nearly half of children in this age group have television sets in their bedrooms, and American preschoolers watch television for an average of more than two hours a day (Rideout et al. 2003). What are these children learning while watching television or using the computer? Many programs aimed at audiences of children have explicitly geographical content, from shows like “Dora the Explorer” aimed at preschoolers to more sophisticated programs on networks such as the Discovery and History Channels.

Lines of demarcation between education and popular culture are becoming increasingly blurred. Historically, formal education was the primary institution by which information as well as cultural values was passed on to rising generations. Schools were repositories of classical music, fine arts, and other aspects of “serious” culture, whereas popular culture was ignored or dismissed by educators. Today, popular culture is an important component of educational curricula, whereas computers allow anyone to have worldwide access to vast quantities of information. Popular culture has become an important filter associated with the management of information about the world. The influence of popular culture and mass media in creating and maintaining worldviews, including stereotypes of exotic people and places, cannot be overstated.

Dittmer (2005) has called attention to the importance of popular culture in promoting geopolitical worldviews. As Dittmer (2005:626) put it, popular culture “is one of the ways in which people come to understand their position both within a larger collective identity and an even broader geopolitical narrative.” Dittmer examined the popular comic book series, Captain America, tracing the evolution of this character from its original creation in 1940, shortly before US entry into World War II, through the 1990s. Throughout this history, Captain America and many other fictional superheroes fought for American ideals against a variety of villains, but the identity, location, and the characteristics of the villains changed along with American history. Characters representing actual or supposed enemies of the United States were routinely “othered” not only in comic books such as Captain America, but also in movies, television shows, and other popular culture media. Before and during World War II, the villains were Germans and Japanese; after the war, they were Russian Communists. As Cold War tensions began to ease during the 1970s, Dittmer pointed out that Captain America began to turn his attention away from battling Soviet Communists, instead doing battle against “poverty, racism, and pollution” (Dittmer 2005:632). Dittmer regarded Captain America as “a truth claim regarding the characteristics that define America against a backdrop of otherness” (Dittmer 2005:633), with the specifics of “otherness” changing as American culture and relationships with other countries evolved before, during and after the Cold War.

The Captain America example illustrates the importance of popular culture in structuring worldviews about exotic places. Through movies, novels, websites, and television shows, Germans have often been portrayed as jack-booted Nazis, Russians as rigid and ruthless Communists bent on world domination, Arabs as wild-eyed, fanatic terrorists and Chinese and Japanese as greedy, devious business tycoons. These and other stereotypes perpetrated within popular culture could be regarded as a contemporary form of orientalism. Indeed, orientalism continues to affect popular media. For example, Gokmen and Haas (2007) documented orientalist biases in coverage of the Middle East in the popular periodical National Geographic between the end of the Cold War in 1990 and 2006. Gokmen and Haas identified numerous articles in National Geographic in which people and places in the Middle East were depicted as threatening, mysterious, or backward. Tucker (2006) examined orientalism in the context of popular video games, many of which are produced in Japan. However, Tucker pointed out that many video games reinforce stereotypes of Asians and Asian culture in order to be marketed successfully to Western consumers.

The importance of popular culture in creating and perpetuating images of exotic people, places, and events may be increasing because of exponential increases in the volume of information available to students. The explosive growth in the volume of education is associated with the democratization of information. Not only does the internet provide any user with immediate access to vast quantities of information, but the user has many opportunities to organize, display, share, and publicize information. Websites, blogs, YouTube videos, and pages on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites give any internet user the opportunity to contribute to the constantly increasing volume of information. Many people prepare and post blogs that are focused on their experiences of other cultures and their opinions about various aspects of international relations. Sites such as Wikipedia allow anyone to post information about people, places, and events, subject only to the constraint that other users can edit this information and correct factual errors. The increasing volume of information about places from large numbers of sources has profoundly changed the role of the classroom and the teacher in geographic education. It means that geography teachers and textbook authors can no longer see themselves as the sole link between the student and the world, nor can they hope to disseminate definitive statements about places on the Earth’s surface and relationships between them.

Changing mapping technology has also impacted geographic education. Over the past decade, the development of Google Earth and increasingly sophisticated geographic information science (GIS) technologies has revolutionized the presentation of information about places to students as well as to the general public. As Murphy (2007:132) pointed out, “GIS offers a means of tying data digitally to a specific location so that their nature and impact can be assessed in relation to other data.” Students and adults are often exposed to GIS-based maps associated with news stories, weather reports, actual and predicted disasters, and works of fiction.

Journalistic accounts of news events are often linked to Google Earth, which enables the viewer to appreciate the location of the events relative to other important places. For example, journalistic accounts of the conflict between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008 were often accompanied by GIS-based maps that enabled the viewer to visualize the location of the conflict, the ethnic backgrounds of people living in the affected area, the region’s topography, the location of oil pipelines, and other features whose existence and location were critical to understanding the conflict. GIS maps are also used on fictional television programs to provide information to the viewer about the locations associated with events essential to their plots. The explosion of GIS technologies has no doubt improved the ability of students, as well as the general public, to visualize and understand places and geography without necessarily being guided by textbooks or other materials associated with formal educational institutions.


Historically, geographic education in the United States and other Western societies was based on a Eurocentric, orientalist worldview that was dismissive of non-Western cultures and economies, treating “natives” of non-Western cultures as backward, ignorant, and lazy. In recent years, people have become increasingly aware of the importance of place and the connections between places in the world economy. This awareness coincided with emphasis on postindustrial education, focusing on connections between concepts rather than rote memorization.

As these changes took place, the orientalist biases that have historically characterized geographic education in the United States and other Western countries have gradually disappeared. As geographic educators become more aware of such biases and how to reduce their impacts, and as educators recognize the increasingly pervasive effects of new mapping technologies inside and outside the classroom, it can be anticipated that geographic education will have an increasingly important role to play in promoting public awareness of international relations. However, such awareness must be linked the changing role of educational institutions in managing information, and to recognition of the changing relationships between education and information.


This paper is dedicated to the memory of Mahmut Gokmen (1981–2008), who lost his life in a tragic accident on July 20, 2008. Mahmut was a very promising PhD student at the University of Oklahoma with strong interests in orientalism, geographic education, international relations, and political geography.


The helpful comments of Colin Flint and two anonymous reviewers on earlier drafts of this paper are gratefully acknowledged.


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