You don’t have to know much about topography to imagine that fighting for geography education is an uphill battle. Study after study has desensitized the public to American students’ geographic illiteracy, showing that two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 cannot identify Iraq on a map; that six months after Hurricane Katrina, 33 percent of Americans in that age range failed to locate Louisiana; that nine in ten high school graduates in the United States do not know where Afghanistan is. These figures are just a few of many similar statistics that are both alarming and, to students who have been educated in geographically-ignorant America, entirely expected.
Yale is not exempt from this flaw in the American educational system. The University, which hasn’t had a geography department since 1967 and employs no geographers at the undergraduate level, offers a bleak landscape for study of the discipline. In this respect, the University reflects the Ivy League norm. Though most, if not all, Ivies incorporate geographic methodology—mapping and spatial thinking—in programs such as economics, area studies, urban planning, and geophysics, only Dartmouth has a department of geography.
This hasn’t always been the case. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when seven of the eight Ivies were born, “the study of the globes,” as geography was then known, was integrated into the founding curricula of all of them. At the turn of the 19th century, elite universities began to move away from the goal of forming well-filled minds in favor of forming well-made minds. As the focus on mastering specific knowledge waned, so too did the study of geography, which at that time was restricted to plotting and memorizing maps of the celestial and terrestrial spheres. Geography began to be seen not as a college discipline but as a grade-school subject. By 1830, only the University of Pennsylvania still offered a geography curriculum.
Later in that century, however, the work of an introverted English naturalist put Ivy League geography back on the map. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution reignited interest in geography, this time as a study of “man-land” relationships. For a little under a century, geography thrived in many different forms throughout the Ivy League. Physical geography, a sub-discipline closely related to geology, was the strength of Harvard’s department; at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, scholars studied human use of natural resources, pioneering the sub-field of economic geography; and Yale led the area of human geography. By 1920, however, what Richard Wright, a professor of geography at Dartmouth, calls “the heyday of Ivy League Geography” had passed. Geography’s most recent fall was in many ways a victim of coincidence: In just a few years, the discipline lost many of its all-stars to death, illness, and retirement. While geography programs at each of the schools waxed and waned throughout the 20th century, only Dartmouth’s survived into the 21st. Elsewhere on the globe, geography remains an incredibly popular field—some argue that the discipline is especially relevant for former colonizing and colonized peoples. Even within the United States, geography thrives at many Midwestern state schools. But for most of the Ivy League, geography is little more than a memory.
The discipline’s struggle to regain its footing at the Ivies can perhaps be mapped to a struggle over the definition of the field. What in the world is geography, anyway? Despite the deplorable state of American students’ knowledge of the schoolhouse globe, the notion that mere fact-based mapping constitutes geography has proved the field’s biggest obstacle since academia did away with fact-gathering. It is all too easy to overlook the discipline’s theoretical component, focusing instead on its applications—the data collection side of geography. In this way, the near disappearance of geography from the Ivy League could be seen as just another case of Ivory Tower elitism. Critics with a disdain for the vocational question the discipline’s intellectual merit.
Their claims are not entirely unfounded. At Central Connecticut State University, a sub-discipline called the geography of tourism has become increasingly popular. “A lot of our students are different from Yale students in that they are thinking of college as job training,” says Cynthia Pope, a CCSU geographer who is teaching a medical geography course at the Yale Medical School—a vocational institution. And, of course, it is the conceptual, not the vocational, that impresses academia. “You find this in every field,” explains Haun Saussy, a professor of literature at Yale, who is currently teaching a humanities course called “Mental Geography.” “We talk about the theory of translation though we don’t reward people for doing translations. Translating becomes a technical thing.”
Pope objects to the view of geography as “sticking thumbtacks on a map to indicate places you’ve visited,” explaining her much more nuanced approach to the discipline: “The most basic definition of geography for me is how humans interact with their environment. The underlying themes are space and place—how place impacts humans and how humans impact place.”
Wright, the Dartmouth geography professor, offers an equally passionate defense of conceptual geography. “I want to emphasize that we theorize about these things,” he says. “It’s not a matter of collecting information about places or thinking about map projections. We theorize how scale works.”
Today’s theorizing revolves largely around shifting borders. In the age of globalization, geography is more relevant than it has been since the age of exploration. Many scholars believe that the boundaries separating today’s countries from one another—whether they be artificially or naturally drawn—are no longer the most useful way to think about humans’ relationships with each other and with the earth. “People are kind of taking it as faith that globalization abolishes distance,” says Saussy, but geography complicates that assumption. Geographers are interested in the nuanced boundaries that separate people, in more than just physical features like the Berlin Wall or the Atlantic Ocean. “If you’re a Haitian peasant, it’s very hard for you to get to Miami, but if you are a professional in Beijing you can very easily, by sending a resume across seas, find yourself in New Haven,” Saussy explains. “The potency of geography is that it’s kind of a corrective to certain illusions about globalization.”
That’s not to say that modern geography has done away with mapping. “Yes, we draw maps. And we’re pretty good at it,” Wright says. “But a lot of people think of a map as an outcome, and for me, it’s a starting position.” A map is to the geography student what textual evidence is to the English major: a tool used to prove a larger thesis. “Maps have important rhetorical potential. You can be very persuasive about a particular line of inquiry by using maps in different ways. They can be manipulated,” Wright explains.
Paradoxically, one of the most respected faces of 21st-century geography is also one of the most technical. Global Imaging Systems (GIS), a form of digital mapping, is one of today’s most cutting-edge areas of geography. GIS draws heavily upon satellite imagery, creating visuals of places and spaces for such varied applications as tracking polar bears for wildlife conservationists and spending patterns for marketing firms. If anything has made geography more accessible and appealing in the 21st century, it is GIS, to which procrastinators across the globe became addicted when Google Earth put the world at their fingertips.
The rise of GIS exemplifies the re-emergence of geography in a new form that fuses its technical and conceptual strains. Avoiding the word “geography,” Harvard opened a “Geospatial Library” in 2002, an online database that was crucial to the foundation of the university’s Center for Geographic Analysis. That same year, scholars at Brown created a program called “Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences.” S4, as the program has been futuristically nicknamed, was designed to promote spatial analysis by bringing Global Imaging Systems and GIS experts to campus to offer their expertise as spatial consultants to Brown’s existing departments and to train graduate and undergraduate students in GIS. Yet none of these programs are full-fledged departments.
At Dartmouth, meanwhile, the plainly named Department of Geography is remarkably successful. “We’ve got a pretty good reputation,” Wright says. This is an understatement: Last year, the department graduated a record high of 47 students out of a class of 1,100, while the historic average hovers around thirty. Geography ranks in the top ten most popular undergraduate majors at Dartmouth.
While any discussion about the formation of a geography department at Yale is, at best, on the backburner, the University is beginning to see geography as a hot topic. At the beginning of the fall semester, Yale’s American Studies program began a search for a cultural geographer to fill an assistant professorship. “We were asking ourselves, ‘Where are the areas of real excitement? Where are people really pushing the boundaries? Where are people doing work that will serve our department’s [needs] and not duplicate what we already have?’” says Matthew Frye Jacobson, chair of the American Studies Department. “Geography carried the day.” The theme of this fall’s Franke Lecture Series in the Humanities—distinct from Saussy’s course—is “Mental Geography: Mapping, Cognition, Appropriation, Inscription.” Its array of lecturers—a geographer, a professor of psychology and education, and an anthropologist—points to another underlying facet of geography that has hindered its fight for its own department: It is, at heart, an interdisciplinary study.
Yet geography’s interdisciplinary nature is also one of the qualities that put it at the cutting-edge of academia. “The interdisciplinary discipline is on the rise,” says Pope, whose work studying women and HIV in Latin America requires literacy in such disparate fields as epidemiology, gender studies, and area studies.
Julie Newman, director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability, is an advocate for interdisciplinary studies on campus. Addressing the “new challenges” of the modern world, Newman argues, will “require educational systems that allow—beyond allow, encourage—cross disciplinary ways of thinking.” Many schools, however, accustomed to the lines between academic fields—lines that geography jumps—are reluctant to support as interdisciplinary a department as geography. “There’s a lot of lip service paid toward them, without much structure,” Pope explains. Priorities boil down to dollars. “There are a lot of interdisciplinary programs, but they’re not their own proper departments, so many times they don’t have their own funding—if any funding.”
Some would say this is a good thing. Critics claim that the most useful aspects of the study of geography have been absorbed by other disciplines, rendering the need for a distinct department obsolete. “[Geography was] kind of swallowed up as area studies,” says Yale’s Jacobson. Symbolically, the former home of Harvard’s influential geography department is, today, its East Asian Studies Department. At Yale, the interdisciplinary Ethnicity, Race, and Migration major applies a geographic spatial awareness to discussions of identity but is only offered as a second major.
Still, proponents of geography defend the field’s right to its own department. “We are the only discipline that pays primary attention to scale, location, and space. No other discipline really does what we do. And it really does matter,” Wright pleads. There’s certainly evidence to support his claim. After all, geography is always becoming. No longer a discipline about drawing boundaries, geography is a discipline about pushing them.