Photo: globe with a magnifying glass

#tbt: Geography—What do you do with that?

Writer’s note: This week, I’m kickin’ it old school and honoring #tbt (throwback Thursday) by dusting off a Fall 2010 blog post I wrote while interning at National Geographic. This post reveals its age. It was written a few months after the BP oil spill when scars from Katrina were still relatively fresh and when the world was recently pronounced flat. Like most good things though, this post seems to have gotten better with age. While the details have changed, the themes remain the same. Instead of Katrina we’re recovering from Sandy and Nemo. The world’s population has surpassed 7 billion people. And yes, people still harass me at trivia night. However, I think the most interesting changes to consider are the ones me and my fellow interns have undergone since I first wrote this post.

Photo: Hand holding a globe.
Photograph by Serhiy Zamanyahre, My Shot

Any geography major will tell you “What do you do with that?” is the first question you are asked after telling someone that you are, in fact, a geography major and explaining that “Yes, geography is something you can major in.”

Geography is a misunderstood discipline in the United States. Our neighbors to the north in Canada and across the pond in Great Britain have a much better understanding of geography and as it would follow, a much higher level of respect for it as a study area than we do. There is a far lesser chance that British students will have to face assaults from random passersby about how they will ever be able to make a career out of “making maps.” Newsflash: that’s cartography, NOT geography. The United States seems to be under the misconception that geography is nothing more than archives of maps and lists of figures and facts. Any trivia night I go to is marred by the assumption that I am a walking encyclopedia of country capitals. People become strangely angry to find out that I do not know the capital of every country in the world and therefore will not be the team’s savior in the “Geography” category.
Photo: Globe.
Photograph by Colleen Sullivan, My Shot

I concede that facts, maps and figures are many of the raw materials that make up geography. But assuming that is all that geography IS is like saying that lasagna is nothing more than a tomato, a cow, a grain and festered milk. Lasagna is about the chemistry between ingredients, not the ingredients themselves. Likewise, facts, maps and figures may be the heart of geography, but not the soul. It’s how these geographical “ingredients” relate to each other and to us, rather than what they are independently, that defines geography. It’s about relationships and how these relationships function across space in both a physical and social sense.

Consider the Gulf—between the oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana has gotten a raw deal lately. Physical geography can explain the intensity of the hurricane and the scientific effects of oil in water. Human geography asks what factors combined to create emergency response shortcomings for different groups of people in the aftermath of Katrina. Both physical and human geography are equally important in understanding the full extent of these disasters. Without these human geography considerations, our knowledge is incomplete. With incomplete knowledge, there are incomplete solutions.

Geographic themes have real world application. For example, consider the implications of living in a globalized world recognized by Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat. People without an understanding of world relationships or different cultures will be left behind. Or Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums—unprecedented world population growth is resulting in unofficial slums and overcrowded cities, making urban planning and development strategy a necessity. Or, think about it from a business standpoint—the economic worth of geographic themes like sustainability is increasing through carbon emissions offset programs and other popular “green” initiatives.

Geography provides a means of exploring and interpreting the world we live in. Like all academic disciplines, geography attempts to explain why the world is the way it is and tries to fix the problems the world faces in its own way. Geography is history, social studies, politics, mathematics and science. It is unique, though, in the way it considers these subjects areas and relates them to each other across space and time. Geography is learning how to analyze, think and explore. It’s knowing the world on a more intimate level and knowing how to apply this knowledge as a global citizen.

So my response when people ask me “What I’ll do” with geography?

Put simply: “Anything.”

The Fall 2010 Geography Interns take reading National Geographic Magazine seriously—very seriously. Photograph by Laura Newcomer.
The Fall 2010 Geography Interns take reading National Geographic Magazine seriously—very seriously. Photograph by Laura Newcomer.

My fellow geographers are a living testament that you can do anything with geography. Since writing this post back in 2010, the members of my intern group have become educators, environmental scientists, lawyers, writers, marketers, outdoor guides and GIS specialists. And those are just the people I interned with directly. Of my larger circle of geography friends, one’s on his way to becoming a famous musician, one’s exploring Patagonia and some are researchers. One’s an accomplished mountain climber, many have gone back to school and some have started non-profits. This seems to be the beauty of the “throwback”; the ability to look back, consider where we’ve been and use that information to forge ahead into a brighter future.

Written by Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Education Programs. For those curious parties, here’s the link to the original post.

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