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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Geography: Use It or Lose It

Dr. Jerome Dobson
Washington, DC
May 25, 2010


Dr. Nina Fedoroff : Good morning. Welcome to the distinguished Jefferson Lecture Series. Today's speaker is Dr. Jerome Dobson, known to all of us and you as Jerry. Dr. Dobson is a professor of Geography at the University of Kansas, currently serving as a Jefferson Fellow, and senior scientist in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues. Dobson is also president of the American Geographical Society. His leadership in Geographic Information System has been recognized through the Robert T. Aangeenbrug Distinguished Career Award, confirmed by the Geographic Information Systems and Science Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers in 2009. And the Award of Distinction conferred by the Cartography and Geographic Society in 2008. He is chair of the Great Plains Rocky Mountain Division of the Association of American Geographers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

His research contributions include the paradigm of automated geography; he spent a role in originating the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis. His leadership of NOAA’s long-term effort to advanced remote-sensing methods for the large area change analysis, and his leadership of the LandScan global population database. Which, by the way, has become the de facto world standard for estimating populations at risk during natural disasters, wars, and terrorist acts.

His current research includes testing a new system for mapping minefields without walking on them. Designing and promulgating a new world standard for cartographic representation of land mines, minefields, and mine actors. And leading a GS Bowman expedition to Mexico, the Antilles, Columbia, Jordan and Kapitsa. And we're delighted to have him. His title is, “Geography: Use It or Lose It.”


Jerry Dobson: Well, thank you very much. I want to begin with my ‑‑ let me see, my ‑‑ yes, with my disclaimer that I'm speaking today as a lone geographer, not for AGS and not for the United States government. I’m sure you've all seen this expression in Washington, “There are too many peacocks and too few perches.” I arrived in town, I'd heard that before, and it's such a friendly town. Immediately, my neighbor offered to loan me his plumage and I was just astounded. You can see I was new in town, I was just a rube off of the prairie and I still had my jeans and cowboy boots on, and he offered me this plumage, and it's absolutely spectacular. I'll use it when I can.

Let me start off with three facts about geography that are really designed to make you think about where the discipline stands. The first is that the American Geographical Society was responsible for drafting President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The second is that no president since Lyndon Johnson obtained his highest degree from a university that presently has a geography department, and in fact he got it from university of Texas at San Marcos ‑‑ and we have a member from there visiting today. I know you have been all heard a lot and worried a lot about balance on the Supreme Court, consider this one: no U.S. Supreme Court justice since 1993 attended law school in a university that presently has a geography department. And that one, by the way, was from Oxford. No United States Supreme Court justice since 1962 attended law school in an American University that presently has a geography department. And the third fact is that the current chair of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Geographical Society is Vladimir Putin.

Now, what first impressions would you get from those three simple facts? The first is that geography was a major political force in the United States prior to the end of World War II. And the second is that geography, as a formal academic discipline, has practically no political influence in America today. Fortunately, geography is still strong abroad.

So, I'm going to talk today about geography, what is it? What's it good for? What happened to it in America? Some bad history and some good news. Why isn't that okay? And what can we do about it now?

So, let's start with what is it? Could the answer possibly lie in Metro Center? You've all seen the excitement over Dan Brown's book suggesting that the secrets of the ages are hidden beneath Washington, D.C. Well, I was walking through Metro Center, and I found the answer to the greatest mystery of them all, what is geography? Geography is -- equals, in mathematical precision --


-- geography equals unique coffee flavor. Now, I would not argue with that in the least, geography certainly determines the flavor of coffee, the way it's roasted, the cultural geography determines how it's processed. So yes, they’re right. That was Starbucks, they said it, and they ought to know.

But geography is more than just unique coffee flavor. Geography is to space what history is to time, and I think very few people think of it that way. Geography is a spatial way of thinking, a science with distinctive methods and tools, a body of knowledge about places, a set of information technologies, old and new, contrary to a lot of ‑‑ a lot of people think it's just a new thing we have GIS, but geography has always led in technology, from Eratosthenes measuring the earth on forward. People think of it as place-name geography, but if you look at the deeper parts of the iceberg, spatial thinking, place-based research, scientific integration, GIS and so on, not just place-name geography.

Geography is about understanding people and places and how real world places function in a viscerally organic sense. It's about understanding spatial distributions and interpreting what they mean. If we look at the specialties of American geographers, a lot of people outside geography think of it as a physical discipline, but as you see here only 10 percent of geographers claim a physical specialty. Far more, about well over half, claim some sort of human geography as a specialty. And, one-fifth, more than one-fifth, claim geographic information science as a specialty.

I was strolling through the Internet one day, and I ran across this paper, which is talking about macro-engineers' dreams, but it's about geo-engineering, and they asked this question, “Is it now opportune to put forth a practical 21st century definition of geography?” And they said, “Yes, indeed and Jerome E. Dobson offered a definition found useful by us.” So here's the definition they were talking about, “Geography is a dimensional science in humanity based on spatial logic in which locations, flows, and spatial associations are considered to be primary evidence of earth processes both physical and cultural. Its hallmarks are spatial analysis, place-based research, fieldwork, and scientific integration.” They went on to say this, and I had to overcome a great deal of modesty to read this to you but --


“Whether he's a aware of the fact for not, Dobson follows in the footsteps of two great geoscience prophets, Chamberlin and Wegener, and himself pioneers a new trail for moderns to trudge when it comes to future earth sciences."  Modesty aside, we're undergoing a geographic revolution right now in this country, we have been for a number of years worldwide, and it started with geographic information systems in the 1960s, digital satellite remote sensing in the 1970s, the global positioning system in the 1980s and ’90s finally went public in the ’90s, and then Google Earth in the 2000s. There's a new struggle to come up with a term to represent what all of this represents in the new operating environment, where you have Google Earth and volunteer geographic information crowd sourcing, social networking, and all these other sources of information. Some people want to call it neogeography, some people call it GIS 2.0 -- one of my students is doing a dissertation on GIS 2.0.

Well, we are at its center, if you go to Google Earth, now this is ‑‑ has been the case worldwide for much of the time that its existed, if you go to Google Earth and zoom, but don't pan, don't move it anywhere else, where does it go, what's the default position? Well, it's the center of the earth, you see it marked right there, and that is in Lawrence, Kansas, right across the street, across Iowa Street from the University, now, why would you pose that is the case? Well, it's because of this man, Brian McClendon, was one of our students, a graduate student from the University of Kansas, who became one of the founders of Keyhole which became Google Earth. He's actually going to be in this building today, but was not available this morning. And why am I standing beside him? Well, I'm just trying to share his perch a little bit, but he's a very socially committed person, done a lot of ‑‑ Google sent 30 people to the latest GIS conference in Africa to help people learn how to do GIS there.

Okay, what is geography good for? Let's look back. It certainly was good for inventing GIS. If you go to the main user’s group conference of GIS today, the ESRI user’s group, Roger Tomlinson is known as the father of GIS, he's not an employee of theirs, but he always speaks there, and he walks to the stage and he says, “My name is Roger Tomlinson. I am a geographer.” Now, the other person who ‑‑ for some time there was a contention whether the term was actually by Tomlinson or Duane Marble, both of them geographers, but John K. Wright, if you look back and see who was the first person to formalize the concepts of points, lines, and areas, that's so important in GIS today, that was John K. Wright, an employee of the American Geographical Society back in the 1930s. The roots go deep.

What's geography good for? I myself have been involved in developing this LandScan global population database that, you know, I mentioned a while ago. We feel very good about the uses to which it has been put. The first suggestion ever of continental drift was by Abraham Ortelius in 1596. He was a geographer. He wrote it in a book called “Thesaurus Geographicus.” Alfred Wegener who invented ‑‑ who is recognized today as the author of continental drift theory, was an atmospheric scientist, if he were in my university today that would be in the geography department, and at the very least he used spatial logic, which is identical ‑‑ his way of thinking is identical to the way most geographers think. Alfred Russel Wallace, best known for the Wallace line separating different types of vegetation and fauna in Southeast Asia, but he was the co-discoverer of evolution and by today's rules of precedence would be considered the discoverer.

My own American Geographical Society I mentioned earlier, the reason we were responsible for drafting that Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points is because we were charged by Woodrow Wilson through World War I to conduct what is called the inquiry, a massive analysis of geographic intelligence throughout World War I, 150 geographers, historians, economists, statisticians, ethnologists, and students of government and international law. We advised and supported the American delegation throughout the Paris Peace Conference. At one point we were producing 300 maps per week to support the boundary negotiations.

The person in charge of that was Isaiah Bowman, and I mentioned today Wes Reisser is in the audience, Wes would you just raise your hand so if anyone wants to talk with you about Isaiah Bowman ‑‑ he recently completed his dissertation on Isaiah Bowman, he worked here in the State Department. Bowman led the inquiry in World War I, he was the chief advisor to President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference, and at one time Woodrow Wilson even ordered his State Department and military officials to report to him through Isaiah Bowman. He was the author of America’s globalization policy that said we could lead the world through economic and political means, not through military conquests. He was, to a lesser extent, Roosevelt’s geographer in World War II, and was one of the top six architects of the United Nations. We feel very proud of him because he was Director of the America Geographical Society for much of that time, 1915 to 1935. Then he became president of Johns Hopkins University. And, oh by the way, he explored the Andes Mountains and was second in command on the expedition that discovered Machu Picchu, though he never saw it himself.

Now, at the end of World War I all of the collections of those maps that I mentioned were passed to the State Department, both the collections and the function were moved here, and the function became the Office the Geographer, which I'm in today, so that's sort of coming full circle.

I'll mention some people who were not particularly involved in, say, war or peace, but certainly major contributors to the American society. Hugh Hammond Bennett was president of the Association of American Geographers, and was the person who founded the soil conservation service during the Dust Bowl days. Carl Sauer, phenomenal scholar who changed our understanding of ancient America.

But I've often said that if people have these silly states-and-capitals kinds of impressions of geography, the most convincing thing for them to do would be to go to a geography department, you could do it here at George Washington University, walk down the hall, knock on the door of a professor and ask them what they do. If you were to do that in my department you would find people working on global change, genocide, and if you met my student John Kostelnick, he left our ‑‑ he's completed his Ph.D. and went out to work at the Illinois State University having under his belt a world standard. He wrote the world standard for representation of land minds, minefields, and mine actions on maps.

So what happened to it in America? Well, there's some bad history. Let’s talk first about the global trend over 2,500 years. Geography started out very strong among the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese in the classical time. During the Dark Ages it was essentially preserved by Irish monks, and Arabs, and Persians at the peripheries of European civilization. It came back -- starting about 1400 -- came back and thrived for centuries based on exploration. From about 1600 to 1900 on westward expansion, for the first half of the 20th century on geopolitics, and now it's coming back into favor because of GIS, globalization, war, and sustainability. But a strange thing happened to it here in the United States. After all those wonderful accomplishments of the first half of the 20th century, and when many of those contributors were still alive and kicking, in 1948 Harvard abolished geography, then Stanford, Yale, Penn, Northwestern, Chicago, Columbia, Michigan. And then high school geography started disappearing; only 16 states require high school geography today. In elementary school it was melded into that mish mash they call social studies that doesn't do much for any of the component fields. And that is what I refer to as the American purge of geography. I'm not the only one to use that term.

Today, of the top 20 private universities in the U.S., only two of them have geography departments ‑‑ only two left, and you see a number that had it before and lost it. Now, let's look at those two. One of them is Johns Hopkins; the other is the University of Southern California. University of Southern California is closing its geography department right now in the midst of all the boom, all the wonderful things that are happening. And John Hopkins is down now to two faculty out of 18, only two claim to be geographers. So it's hovering.

This was not just in academia. This is the staff of the Office of the Geographer here at the State Department, and you see it going from zero in 1920, it started -- actually started out in '21 -- up to 88 people by the close of World War II, but then immediately dropped to five people, three people, two people, has gradually been coming back up to about half its maximum. It didn’t just happen in the United States; it happened in the Americas. If you go to Mexico City today and visit the Pan American Institute of Geography and History you will find a wonderful building built by the Mexican government in 1920s to draw the institute there, it occupies about a city block of space, but if you walk in and meet with the institute itself, they have one little suite in that whole complex. And I asked, “When was it down sized?” And the year was 1948.

So it was all in that immediate post war period. What we've seen ever since in the U.S. government is a “don't ask don't tell” policy toward geography. So, the first one to come in was area studies in the National Defense Education Act of 1958, what is area studies but geography, but it was called area studies. In the 1980s several ‑‑ it was NOAA, and NSF, and some other U.S. government agencies got together and agreed that they were going to support a new scientific discipline. I read the ‑‑ when it came out I was at a conference in Germany, a conference of geographers, I read the definition to them and there was a horse laugh in the entire audience because they had reinvented geography. Geospatial is another. Geo went -- and more recently human terrain as synonyms or aliases for geography. And in the academic community we see geoscience is coming along, and here's one caught in the act, you see this, this is the United States Air Force Academy, it's now the department of economics and geosciences, but someone forgot to tell the web master so it still shows up as economics and geography on their masthead.

But let's look at the good news. There's still, of the top 20 public U.S. universities, there are still 15 geography departments, though one of those has waivered a bit, University of California Davis is now a program rather than a department, but the program is doing well as I understand it. But ‑‑ so, 14 or 15 geography departments that still are strong enough and good enough and booming that they are creating a foundation from which we could rebuild geography if the opportunity is given us. This is the number of students degrees conferred from 1950 to the present, you see that that's actually been rising, even though the number of departments was declining, the number of graduates was rising.

Many of the ones that do exist are adding new graduate degree programs, there are 10 new Ph.D. programs, so this is the resurgence that everyone is so excited about is that we're seeing more programs in the departments that already have geography departments. There are four new B.A. programs, and there's been some progress in the Ivy League. And as I said, geography is still prominent ‑‑ strong abroad. There are prominent Ph.D. programs at Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne Charles University in Prague has four geography departments. And Prince William, if you aren't impressed by Putin, Prince William got his degree in geography with honors, bachelor’s and master’s Degrees.

The ‑‑ as Nina said I'm chair of the Great Plains Rocky Mountain Region of the Association of American Geographers, so I take some pride in that association as well as the American Geographical Society. Their membership national global member of AAG has nearly doubled in the past decade, annual attendance meeting has more than doubled, it's now the largest congregation of geographers in the world ‑‑ anywhere in the world, and it's nearly one-third of the attendees come from abroad, but you can look at it as showing we have some leadership there globally, but it also means that a lot of the people who attend are not ‑‑ in other words, it sort of deflates that number to say some of these people are not from American institutions.

Geography is booming under its various aliases and rubrics. The Department of Labor has identified geotechnology as one of the three top growth industries in the country. And, we see military and intelligence organizations increasingly recognizing human geography as a top priority. Now, they've used a lot of different names to describe it because the intellectual base was not there when it started. But more and more they're beginning to call it human geography.

So why isn't geography current status in America okay? Well, an informed public is essential to democracy, yet when it comes to foreign policy we don't have one. That applies to voters, journalists, analysts, policy makers, politicians. In regard to foreign intelligence, foreign policy, and military strategy, Americans generally know there's something rotten in Denmark --


-- they just don't know where Denmark is, or who lives there, or how it works. And therein lies the rub. American interest at home and abroad have been severely damaged by geographic ignorance about foreign places and peoples. We made uninformed choices about going to war, and I use for example Vietnam and Iraq. I'm not saying whether the decision to go was right or wrong, I'm not making ‑‑ I'm just not entering that discussion, what I'm saying is we went without understanding what we were getting into. And when I say we, I mean we the people, not the State Department, not the Congress, not the voters ‑‑ or not the Defense Department, in particular. I mean we the people sent troops into battle unprepared for what they faced culturally in Afghanistan and Iraq, and physically, for example, hostage rescue attempt in Iran. We misjudged the national will of advisories, and the prime example is China crossing the Yalu, greatest military defeat in U.S. history. We fail to account for deep seeded hatreds among cultures, Sunni versus Shia for instance.

We underestimated commitments and capabilities of advisories, Vietnam, Beirut, Mogadishu, Afghanistan. We alienated allies, Europe in regard to Iraq for instance. And we ignored clear warnings by prominent geographers, Isaiah Bowman in 1949 warned against ever going into a U.S. war in Southeast Asia, Harn Dublee warned Congress about Hussein’s intention to invade Kuwait. Occasionally war fighters embarrassed out country, hurt national interest, or died because they did not understand local cultures, customs, and sensitivities. You know, certainly true in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Occasionally analysts misused, or failed to use, geographic technology with tragic results, for example the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Conspicuously missing in every case has been the kind of understanding that geographers spend their careers learning and teach routinely even in introductory classes. In every case some wise people in government, often geographers but not always geographers, warned decision makers, but there was practically no public debate until after the damage was done. And this is where it really comes to the heart of your offices, your positions, in every case there was no public constituency to support your positions. The wise ones, that is.

So, you know, we hear a lot of people now agonizing over Iraq and Afghanistan and saying, “How did we get it so wrong?” But, it's not just Iraq and Afghanistan, it's Korea, it’s Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, and so forth. We have this century of first half story victories, second half more quagmires than victories. What changed? Was it the valor of our troops? No, they're as outstanding as always. Was it the training, or equipment, or technology? No, those are better than ever. Policy, strategy, foreign intelligence? We've been playing a dangerous game of blind man's bluff and that corresponds with the American purge of geography. America abandoned geography after World War II and hasn't won a war since. Now, that's debatable based on what's ‑‑ how you define a war and how you define a victory, but it makes a point. Sometimes that was because geographic ignorance drove the initial decision to choose war over peace, and sometimes because geographic ignorance led to poor intelligence, strategy, tactics, and diplomacy.

All right, what can we do about it now? Well, you can buy this tee-shirt --


-- can you read what ‑‑ let me ‑‑ defenders of geography.


I bought one for Lee Schwartz, the Geography of the United States, he couldn't be here today. And ‑‑ but, we can't ‑‑ don't see any indication this was offered by an organization that promotes geography, it was just on a website, one of my students ran across it and sent it to me, so I have mine, he has his, we wear them sometimes. But it will help if everyone is willing to say the “G” word, and not just when you’re talking about kids. More seriously, here's some principles I would recommend for a national agenda on geography.

I want you to think, as I go through these, we are in the same state with geography today that we were with math and science in the 1950s, we took the bull by the horn back then and we did something about it. We need to ensure that every elementary and high school student must have the opportunity to learn basic geography and experience GIS technology. At a minimum every freshman should reach college knowing that geography is a viable major with solid career prospects after graduation. Every college student must have access to a full geographic curriculum, that is to say thematic, regional, methodological, and technological within the set of college destinations among which he or she normally would chose. Scholarships must be available to support the best and brightest students who choose to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in geography. Research grants must be available to encourage substantially increased geographic research including fieldwork, both foreign and domestic, by faculty and students. Development grants must be available to upgrade or create geography faculties throughout the nation to ensure topical, regional, methodological, and technological coverage to upgrade GIS facilities and to promote community outreach.

What can the president do about it? I would not presume to advise the president, but I will make some observations. The Chou Emperor of Ancient China, had his geographer royal; Louis XV had his geographer; the Articles of Confederation named an official geographer of the United States -- the title did not make it into the Constitution. President Wilson had his geographer as I said, President Roosevelt had his geographer, but no president since World War II has had a geographer.

What can Congress do about it? Well, geography is the only discipline that was named in the No Child Left Behind program as an essential academic discipline, but was unfunded. Doug Richardson, executive director of the Association of American Geographers could not be here today because he's meeting with Tom Harkin and Lamar Alexander on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, No Child Left Behind Act. Let's hope something happens there. It’s probably our quickest hope for some real change.

It was Congress that named the program area studies, I've often thought how different history would have been, academic history would have been, if they had called it World Regional Geography. I don't think it's too late to make that change, and it's a free, something free that Congress could do. But we can’t wait for all these higher level actions, we ‑‑ what are we going to do in the mean time? We got a war going on and it touches my wife and me very personally because we have a son and a daughter-in-law who are medical doctors in the Army. And I'll just mention this as a connection with current events, if you've seen this story about the Birther -- Lieutenant Colonel Army doctor who has refused to go to Afghanistan because he questions President Obama’s birth certificate, someone had to go in his place and that's our son, and I don't mean that figuratively. He is that man's replacement. And this is where he is, a little isolated valley five miles from the Pakistan border; 200, 400 men, east of the Korengal Valley that's already been abandoned.

So, what are we going to do about it? Well, in my perch, as the American Geographical Society, I said, “What can AGS do about it?” And I did not ‑‑ back of the envelope calculation and determined that for very reasonable funds we could send geographers all over the world. Send teams abroad to improve U.S. understanding of foreign lands and peoples, and I would also say of their understanding of us as well. To build a comprehensive multi-scaled geographic information system for each region, build lasting relationships among American and foreign scholars and institutions, conduct geographic research on issues of national interest to the United States and host countries. Train a cadre of regional experts, disseminate GIS data freely to the public, publish our results in scholarly journals and popular media, and along the way revitalize world regional geography in the age of GIS. So far we've, as Nina mentioned, we sent five of these abroad, four years in Mexico, two in the Antilles, one in each of the other areas. Notice the different institutions involved, different universities involved, notice the different topics, from land reform to violence -- violence in Columbia -- to transportation in Kazakhstan.

Now, one of the methodologies we use in these that connects us with the people and the information of those countries is called participatory mapping, it's a field method that combines the tools of geography with the geographic knowledge of local residents, it recognizes that local inhabitants possess expert knowledge of their own local environments. And the regional experts can then teach them to represent that knowledge in maps and GIS databases. Just to give you a flavor, this is one of the projects we did, this is the Mexico which was actually our prototype and went on for four years. Look at all the different institutions involved, Mexican institutions, Canadian institutions, U.S. institutions.

And we develop a GIS, starting at the national level, but working right down to the local level, multi-scale GIS, and when we get down to that local level we're using a participatory mapping. We conduct workshops, to teach each people how to use the new technology and they learn a valuable skill in that as well. We do fieldwork and training in the field. And we -- eventually what comes out of that is a community map with the kind of information they need to protect themselves, to defend themselves, their rights in court, and also to give the rest of the world a situational awareness of them. Nineteen ‑‑ well, he died in 1914, Ambrose Bierce said, “War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.” And if we don't want to learn that lesson, we're going to face more tragedy. “Geography: Use it or Lose It,” and I mean by that the discipline, the war, and the world. Thank you.


Male Speaker: How do you account ‑‑ how do you explain this purge of geography? Why was there a purge of geography after World War II?

Jerry Dobson: You know, one reason I don't put it in my presentation is I know I'll get the question at the end and I get to answer it in someone else's time. [laughs] No, it always ‑‑ it is always the question. One reason I don't address it in my talk usually is that it is so puzzling, I would ‑‑ I could easily come up with 12 different explanations -- I'm guessing 12, something in that order -- different explanations that have been offered and all of them fall short.

One possibility during World War II, Roosevelt had his geographer who was doing good things, but Hitler had his geographer, Karl Haushofer, who was the author of the lebensraum theory that said they could take any land they wanted. And so it’s possible that there was a reaction here, and American geographers were sort of thrown out, the baby with the bath water. That's possible. That's one possible explanation.

There are people who say it was because geography became too closely allied with environmental determinism which lost its popularity. Show me any other instance where an academic discipline has been punished for a bad theory, it just doesn't happen.

There are always explanations at each individual university, for example at Harvard it was blamed on homophobia. One of the leading geographers there was rumored to be gay. At another university it’ll be because the geologist didn’t like them, or another place because ‑‑ it just doesn't make sense, none of those. The real question is why is geography considered expendable? And I think that may have something to do with America’s isolationism after World War II. The interesting thing is how many of those geographers -- one-third of all academic geographers moved to Washington, D.C. during World War II, and the bulk of them were in OSS at the ‑‑ there was a Geography Division and a Cartography Division. Some of the leading lights of our discipline were in those ‑‑ they simply went back to their universities afterward and never took part in policy making again. So, whatever it was, it affected some of our own people too. Next [unintelligible].

Marsha Goldberg: Marsha Goldberg, Association of American Geographers. I have a question, what's the difference between geography departments and regional science departments? Because I know at Penn a lot of the geographers ended up in regional science, which included economics and a bunch of other stuff. But it seemed to me that's where geography is.

Jerry Dobson: Well, I list that as another alias thing of geography. I've had several things that I say are aliasing of geography. I just go back to well, why can't we ‑‑ why isn’t geography respectable enough to use? But what's happened with regional science is that that was associated with one person, Walter Isard, it got its name on the program, it became the geography and regional science program at NSF. Now that's been changed, it’s no longer geography region science, it's geography and spatial science.

So, we keep going through this ‑‑ I think the biggest problem I have with those aliases is that -- geosciences is the same problem -- I think it doesn't tell people where to go and put their institutional support to make sure there's a foundation of people coming out with these ‑‑ the background to do it. Let me just give you one example of how distinctive geographic thinking is. At one of these trips in Mexico, I was sitting in an audience, a huge auditorium, much larger than this one, students from an entire small university and faculty were there, it was all in Spanish, I don't speak Spanish, and I heard someone ask a question, in Spanish, and I turned to Mary Lynne Bird, who's the director of the American Geographical Society, and I said he sounds like a geographer and she said, well, they don't have a geography department here. We later learned that he was the visiting chair ‑‑ he was a chair of a another geography department who just happened to be visiting that day, so, you know, in just the way he asked his question, not any statement, not any explanation, or analysis, or anything but the way he asked his question I thought, that's a geographer. That's how distinctive it is. Yes.

Matthew Amit: My name is Matthew Amit; I'm also an INR analyst. I have a statement and a question. The statement is, I think that one of your things that are ‑‑ one of the disciplines that is masking geography area studies that you indicated is also running into difficulties now, because a lot of the political science programs that used to host area studies programs have stopped hiring professors who are area specialists because they prefer, the sort of theoretical political science that, you know, of yester year. So, I suspect that area studies that component of geography may be in even more trouble than you suggest here.

The question that I had is about the National Geographic Society. National Geographic, you know just in my own memory, and I think in most of us here, has been one of the most popular magazines in America, you know for my whole life, certainly through most of the post war period. How do you account for the popularity of National Geographic in America with this collapse of interest in geography?

Jerry Dobson: Let me address those one at a time. Area studies, I think you’re exactly right and it's a trend that we see in the discipline of geography as well. If you ‑‑ well, when I was looking to see if we could actually staff this program I've talked about, Bowman Expeditions, we were sending teams all over the world, we have enough geographers to do it so I started kind of doing an assessment of that. And, what I found is that most geography departments have a few regional specialties, they may have five, six, some at the upper end eight, toward the upper end eight, the university that has the most is the University of Texas. I think they list about a dozen different specialties.

The one that has the least is the University of California at Santa Barbara, because they're the leading GIS, Geographic Information Science Department, so you see it moving from area specialties to technological specialties, and that's certainly ‑‑ there's nothing bad about hiring the people in those specialties; we certainly need them. In fact I'm a proponent of that, I've been in the GIS field myself all my career, but we are not putting enough emphasis on the area side, and I have a feeling that that will reverse once people see that there's a market for it. And that market is this ‑‑ I've pointed the fact that the military and intelligence agencies are beginning to realize a deficiency in human geography, they're more and more calling it that, and I think that will help lead us back into that.

Now, National Geographic is another ‑‑ it's an interesting question you ask about National Geographic, I'm a big fan of National Geographic and I know we have one person, two people, anybody else here? Yeah, raise your hand in your from National Geographic. You see so, there's a lot here, so I have to be very, very careful what I say. --


-- No. Let me tell you a little history behind it. American Geographical Society was formed in 1851, the National Geographic Society was formed in 1888, Association of American geographers 1904. Now, if you look at the early journal publications of the National Geographic Society it was a scholarly journal, their citations and everything just like you see in any scholarly journal. And it gained a very strong following of people like John Wesley Powell helped form it, so many people in Washington respected it, and it became very powerful in government. I showed you how powerful we were; I didn't show you some of the other things we did like the Panama Canal, or the Transcontinental Railway, or the most interesting of all the Transatlantic Cable, and a lot of that was done before they existed so there was no competition at that time for sure.

What ultimately happened was that National Geographic decided to go toward the poplar audience, and they were extremely successful for ‑‑ with that, and gained a reputation, and I say this and hope it doesn't sound disparaging, but I think we're probably the only discipline whose image in the American public is determined by a popular magazine and that's National Geographic. What I see happening in recent years, and I hope I don't offend anyone too much to say, I think it's getting a bit less geographic in its coverage. I feel that some of the articles are relying much more on photography than information, but there's the society that's different from the magazine itself, and a lot more going on there as well. And they tried a lot of different things, they've tried more explorer program, tried other things. Did anyone ‑‑ you want to add anything? Dan would you like to add anything to that?

Danny Edelson: It's exactly what you described. It started out as an organization for geographers, and it decided very early in its history that is was going to bring the world to the public, not be another organization for professional geographers. I think that it's ‑‑ we're an interesting organization because we have a lot of media, like the magazine, like the TV channels, and we have a broader mission as well, and I think what our media does is not try to teach geography the way that geographers think about it. They try to bring the world to people who are already curious about the world and different parts of it, and increasingly these days are focused on the environment rather than human geography. But it's not -- the National Geographic magazine and the National Geographic channel are created ‑‑ the tagline these days is to inspire people to care about the planet.

Jerry Dobson: Right.

Danny Edelson: And that's not ‑‑ that's only part of the larger educational mission that I represent, so when I get to ask my question it will be ‑‑ it will focus on that, but I think that National Geographic does not think of itself as a steward of geography, it thinks of itself as an organization that brings the world to its readers, viewers, website browsers. So, we have not maintained the responsibility for geography that geography professional societies have maintained.

Jerry Dobson: Thank you. I believe you were next. Yes.

Cathy Copra: It’s Cathy Copra; I'm a student of geography. A couple of weeks ago you had an open letter in The Washington Post addressed to the Executive Officer of BP, urging him to engage local watermen in the cleanup effort of the coast spill by purchasing the oil they would clean up. I'm curious to hear you describe that in geographic terms, and I'm curious about the response to that.

Jerry Dobson: Well, let me say first that I thought it was a no-brainer. I thought it was just such an obvious solution to the problem if ‑‑ and let me explain to you what I said was that, if BP wants to engage the local population in solving the problem, they should offer a price per barrel for restored oil. They could discount it by the water content, so they're really getting the stuff back. Place tankers or barges out in the oil spill area where they wouldn't have to haul it very far and offer whatever price it takes to get the number of boats they need. I said thousands of boats. A good friend of mine, a geographer who fishes a lot on the coast there, says he thinks 30,000 boats would show up.

And the idea is -- and by the way, if they don't show up increase the price until they do, because if you look at the ‑‑ look at what BP is paying right now per day, it's $10 million a day, but I heard they just put $500 million into a research effort to find out what the effects are going to be. At $100 a barrel they could buy every bit of it back for $14 million. So if it's 10 times that, it's not a problem; it's a good deal for them. I said and now ‑‑ a lot of people say that oh, well, they are paying people. They are paying fishermen to go collect it. That's true, but there are problems with that in that they ‑‑ these fisher men are independent cusses; they do not -- they resent being hired to do something. They would gladly respect a trade, if you want to buy something for them. And BP is taking on liability when they hire people; you're not taking on a liability when you buy something from someone. There's all sorts of reasons to say it would work, and I put it out there and so far I've had a fair amount of response saying this is brilliant. I have not heard one person send a note to me saying it won't work. I got a note from Paul Ehrlich saying this looks environmentally and politically contagious. But I'm not getting any traction with decision makers, I have seen no indication whatsoever that corporate or government people are taking it seriously.

You asked what was geographic about it. In my course at the University of Kansas I’ve used for several years now I’ve used Katrina as a good example of how geographic thinking would have warned us about the problem and helped us prepare for it. I think it exactly the same thing now. You've got to understand the culture of the coast; you've got to understand the industry of the fishing industry. I've worked a lot on the coast because I was funded by the National Marine Fishery Service for 17 or 18 years to work the U.S. coast, all the U.S. coast. And I ‑‑ so you combine that physical geography of where the oil is, how it's going to move, and the cultural geography of how it would work in that society to clean it up, giving people pride back, giving them their money ‑‑ their livelihoods back, makes perfect sense to me, but it's just not going anywhere with politicians. And, you know, this is one where the U.S. government, in the person of the President, could step to the podium and say, “BP, do this. If you don't, I will do it and send you the bill.” And you could make it happen. Yes?

Danny Edelson: Hi, I'm Danny Edelson. I'm the vice-president for education at National Geographic and I do represent the portion of National Geographic that does have the commitment and the responsibility to increasing geographic literacy in this country primarily, but also around the world. And I want to ask you the question that I've been asked over and over since I took on this job, and you're really getting at it with the alias thing, which I tend to think of as a rose by any other name.

But what people say to me is, “But geography has grown to have a meaning in this country which is the trivial fact-based where are things and what is the capital of such and such. And that we appear to be past the point of reclaiming the word geography in the public’s mind.” And I think that's where people are going with the various aliases. I think they are reacting to that understanding of geography. I don't believe that myself, but I don't yet know how we overcome the generations of Americans who have been taught geography in the form of memorizing place names, and coloring in maps, and memorizing the natural resources of [unintelligible], and so the question that I carry around and that I worry about everyday is how do we change that?

Jerry Dobson: Well, I agree with you, I mean, I get that same reaction and I feel your pain, exactly the same problem, but I think education is probably the answer on that because one of the analogies I make, I say to people, if you only had one year of math what would they teach you in it? You'd get the multiplication tables, and you'd be drilled with it, and you'd walk out and say that was a dull year. But if you'd gone on and had more interesting parts of it then you'd appreciate it. I think that part of it has to do with the fact that we do so little in the country. I saw a set of French elementary school books, textbooks in France one time, and by the fifth grade -- now they had geography every year and by the fifth year they covered everything in concept that we do in our first introductory courses in college. Yeah, Wes?

Wes Riesser:  Hi, Wes Reisser with the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and I'm also a geography professor at George Washington University. My question today comes more for what do we do with folks who have not had that geographic education and then are coming into the policy establishment, coming into places like the State Department, the intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, et cetera? I mean, for instance, we have a lot of professional schools, international relations that tend to be the primary feeders into the foreign service, GW is the only one that has a geography program, and I can attest a lot of those students in the international relations program come through my graduate course, and it's the first time, and probably the only time, they'll be exposed to the discipline.

But once we get them in, what are some ways that we can still try to teach these geographic lessons so that those of us who are going out around the world representing the United States, and involved in the policy debate, can be better informed while we hopefully bring that geographic education to the next generation, how do we address it for the current one, the people who are here in Washington now?

Jerry Dobson: Oh, that's a good question. Let me put it this way: I look at some universities feel that they don't needs geographers in order to teach geography, and you certainly do not have to be a committed geographer in order to be a good student of geography, and you can do good things even if you had no geography you may have that innate sense that helps you to make good geographic decisions. So, good things are going to come from people what don't have the backgrounds that I say are so important. But, you know, take that analogy and apply it to physics, a lot of people understand physic who are not physicists, a lot of people understand chemistry who are not chemists, but if you use a whole core of amateurs you're going to blow up some labs, and you're going to cause some severe problems, and so in geography that means we cause problems around the world, the State Department particularly. So, I think we have to accept that in our current state we are not going to have everybody smart on geography. We need to at least tell them what it is when we present it to them, so they know where to go. I guess, let me say on the question of alias thing, the biggest problem I have with that is it throws away 2,500 years of intellectual development. It disconnects us from great geographical works of the past and people of the past.

So, I think I'm not in a position to answer how to do that at the State Department. I will make this observation: as an outsider looking at the State Department, right now geography is considered an intelligence function, and that is good, but you also need to think of it as a policy function, someone who can alert policy makers when policy is being debated early in the process. Wes is on the policy side, but all of us are on the intelligence side, and we have no apologies for that. It's a wonderful thing, we're doing wonderful things, and we're telling people, and we can work with policy offices, but eventually the State Department, just like I said the president ‑‑ well, I didn't say the president needed a geographer, I said other presidents have had geographers. But I'd say the same thing about the State Department, that we need some official recognition of geography on policy making side. And I think Lee, well I won't speak for Lee, I don't think I've offended Lee by saying that. All right, we're right at just over the 12 ‑‑ yes?

Female Speaker:  Thank you very much.

Jerry Dobson: Well, thank you. Thank you very much.

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