The following material comes from Chapter 4 of Geography for Life. You may read it here or in its complete form in your text. For additional readings, go to Resources.
The national geography standards highlighted in this workshop include Standards 6, 10, 11, 13, 17 and 18. As you read, be thinking about how the standards apply in lessons you may have taught.
People's perception of places and regions is not uniform. Rather, their view of a particular place or region is their interpretation of its location, extent, characteristics, and significance as influenced by their own culture and experience. It is sometimes said that there is no reality, only perception. In geography there is always a mixture of both the objective and the subjective realms, and that is why the geographically informed person needs to understand both realms and needs to see how they relate to each other.
Individuals have singular life histories and experiences, which are reflected in their having singular mental maps of the world that may change from day to day and from experience to experience. As a consequence, individuals endow places and regions with rich, diverse, and varying meanings. In explaining their beliefs and actions, individuals routinely refer to age, sex, class, language, ethnicity, race, and religion as part of their cultural identity, although some of their actions may be at least partly a result of sharing values with others. Those shared beliefs and values reflect the fact that individuals live in social and cultural groups or sets of groups. The values of these groups are usually complex and cover such subjects as ideology, religion, politics, social structure, and economic structure. They influence how the people in a particular group perceive both themselves and other groups.
The significance that an individual or group attaches to a specific place or region may be influenced by feelings of belonging or alienation, a sense of being an insider or outsider, a sense of history and tradition or of novelty and unfamiliarity. People's perception of Earth's surface is strongly linked to the concept of place utility - the significance that a place has to a particular function or people. For example, a wilderness area may be seen as a haven by a backpacker or as an economic threat by a farming family trying to hold back forest growth at the edges of its fields. The physical reality of the wilderness area is the same in both cases, but the perceptual frameworks that assign meaning to it are powerfully distinct. A place or region can be exciting and dynamic, or boring and dull depending on an individual's experience, expectations, frame of mind, or need to interact with that particular landscape. The range, therefore, of perceptual responses to a place or region is not only vast, but is also continually changing.
Some places and regions are imbued with great significance by certain groups of people, but not by others. For example, for Muslims the city of Mecca is the most holy of religious places, whereas for non-Muslims it has only historical significance. For foreign tourists Rio de Janeiro is a city of historical richness that evokes images of grandness, energy, and festiveness, but for many local street youths it is a harsh environment where they have to struggle for daily survival. Around the world the names of such places as Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Bhopal, and Chernobyl convey profoundly sad and horrific collective images, but for the people who live there, the reality of life tends to be how best to earn a living, raise a family, educate children, and enjoy one's leisure time. At another level, Disneyland or "my hometown" may evoke equally strong but positive and idiosyncratic images among local inhabitants. People's group perceptions of places and regions may change over time. For instance, as settlement and knowledge spread westward during the nineteenth century, parts of what are now Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska went from being labeled as within the Great American Desert to being likened to the Garden of Eden. Then during the drought years of the 1930s, these same areas changed character yet again, becoming the heart of what was known as the Dust Bowl.
Culture and experience shape belief systems, which in turn influence people's perceptions of places and regions throughout their lives. So it is essential that students understand the factors that influence their own perception of places and regions, paying special attention to the effects that personal and group points of view can have on their understanding of other groups and cultures. Accordingly, it may be possible for students to avoid the dangers of egocentric and ethnocentric stereotyping, to appreciate the diverse values of others in a multicultural world, and to engage in accurate and sensitive analysis of people, places, and environments.
Culture is a complex, multifaceted concept. It is a term used to cover the social structure, languages, belief systems, institutions, technology, art, foods, and traditions of particular groups of humans. The term is used to define each group's way of life and its own view of itself and of other groups, as well as to define the material goods it creates and uses, the skills it has developed, and the behaviors it transmits to each successive generation.
The human world is composed of culture groups, each of which has its distinctive way of life as reflected in the group's land-use practices, economic activities, organization and layout of settlements, attitudes toward the role of women in society, education system, and observance of traditional customs and holidays. These ways of life result in landscapes and regions with a distinctive appearance. Landscapes often overlap, thus forming elaborate mosaics of peoples and places.
These cultural mosaics can be approached from a variety of spatial scales. At one scale, for example, Western Europe's inhabitants can be seen as a single culture group; at another scale they consist of distinctive national culture groups (e.g., the French and the Spanish); and at yet another scale each national culture group can be subdivided into smaller, regionally clustered culture groups (e.g., the Flemings and Walloons in Belgium).
As Earth evolves into an increasingly interdependent world in which different culture groups come into contact more than ever before, it becomes more important that people have an understanding of the nature, complexity, and spatial distribution of cultural mosaics.
Given the complexity of culture, it is often useful - especially when studying the subject from a geographic point of view - to focus on the languages, beliefs, institutions, and technologies that are characteristic of a culture. The geographically informed person, therefore, is an individual who has a thorough grasp of the nature and distribution of culture groups.
Language both represents and reflects many aspects of a culture. It stands as an important symbol of culture. It is seen as a sign of the unity of a particular culture group. It can be analyzed - in terms of vocabulary and structure - for clues about the values and beliefs of a culture group. Language is also a visible marker that provides a way of tracing the history of a culture. The complex and often tense relations between French-speaking and English-speaking people in Quebec illustrate and reflect the importance of language to culture groups and also the value of studying the geography of language.
Beliefs include religion, customs, values, attitudes, ideals, and world views. A person's point of view on issues is influenced by cultural beliefs, which in turn influence decisions about resources, land use, settlement patterns, and a host of other geographically important concerns. The complicated and often difficult relations of Hindus and Muslims in India demonstrate how the spatial organization of a country can be shaped by the geography of the region.
Institutions shape the ways in which people organize the world around them; for example, sets of laws, educational systems, political arrangements, and the structure of the family shape a culture region. The Mormon culture region of the western United States shows how institutions are embodied in a distinctive place, demarcating it and influencing practically every aspect of daily life.
Technology includes the tools and skills a group of people use to satisfy their needs and wants. Levels of technology range from the simple tools used by hunters and gatherers to the most complex machines and information systems used in modern industrial societies. Technologies can be usefully understood as either hardware - the tools themselves - or software - the skilled ways in which a society uses tools. The Amish of south-central Pennsylvania have created a distinctive landscape that is simultaneously an expression of technology, institutions, beliefs, and language.
Whatever characteristic of culture is considered, it is clear that the mosaics of Earth's cultural landscapes are not static. Culture changes as a result of a variety of human processes, migration and the spread (diffusion) of new cultural traits - language, music, and technology - to existing culture groups. The processes of cultural change accelerate with improvements in transportation and communication. Each culture in the world has borrowed attributes from other cultures whether knowingly or not, willingly or not.
Students should be exposed to a rich appreciation of the nature of culture so they can understand the ways in which people choose to live in different regions of the world. Such an understanding will enable them to appreciate the role culture plays in the spatial organization of modern society. Rivalry and tension between cultures contribute much to world conflict. As members of a multicultural society in a multicultural world, students must understand the diverse spatial expressions of culture.
Resources are unevenly scattered across the surface of Earth, and no country has all of the resources it needs to survive and grow. Thus each country must trade with others, and Earth is a world of increasing global economic interdependence. Accordingly, the geographically informed person understands the spatial organization of economic, transportation, and communication systems, which produce and exchange the great variety of commodities - raw materials, manufactured goods, capital, and services - which constitute the global economy.
The spatial dimensions of economic activity and global interdependence are visible everywhere. Trucks haul frozen vegetables to markets hundreds of miles from growing areas and processing plants. Airplanes move large numbers of business passengers or vacationers. Highways, especially in developed countries, carry the cars of many commuters, tourists, and other travelers. The labels on products sold in American supermarkets typically identify the products as coming from other U.S. states and from other countries.
The spatial dimensions of economic activity are more and more complex. For example, petroleum is shipped from Southwest Asia, Africa, and Latin America to major energy-importing regions such as the United States, Japan, and Western Europe. Raw materials and food from tropical areas are exchanged for the processed or fabricated products of the mid-latitude developed countries. Components for vehicles and electronics equipment are made in Japan and the United States, shipped to South Korea and Mexico for partial assembly, returned to Japan and the United States for final assembly intro finished products, then shipped all over the world.
Economic activities depend upon capital, resources, power supplies, labor, information, and land. The spatial patterns of industrial labor systems have changed over time. In much of Western Europe, for example, small-scale and spatially dispersed cottage industry was displaced by large-scale and concentrated factory industry after 1760. This change caused rural emigration, the growth of cities, and changes in gender and age roles. The factory has now been replaced by the office as the principal workplace in developed countries. In turn, telecommunications are diminishing the need for a person's physical presence in an office. Economic, social, and therefore spatial relationships change continuously.
The world economy has core areas where the availability of advanced technology and investment capital are central to economic development. In addition, it has semi-peripheries where lesser amounts of value are added to industry or agriculture, and peripheries where resource extraction or basic export agriculture are dominant. Local and world economies intermesh to create networks, movement patterns, transportation routes, market areas, and hinterlands.
In the developed countries of the world's core areas, business leaders are concerned with such issues as accessibility, connectivity, location, networks, functional regions, and spatial efficiency - factors that play an essential role in economic development and also reflect the spatial and economic interdependence of places on Earth.
In developing countries, such as Bangladesh and Guatemala, economic activities tend to be at a more basic level, with a substantial proportion of the population being engaged in the production of food and raw materials. Nonetheless, systems of interdependence have developed at the local, regional, and national levels. Subsistence farming often exists side by side with commercial agriculture. In China, for example, a government-regulated farming system provides for structured production and tight economic links of the rural population to nearby cities. In Latin America and Africa, rural people are leaving the land and migrating to large cities, in part to search for jobs and economic prosperity and in part as a response to overpopulation in marginal agricultural regions. Another important trend is industrialized countries continuing to export their labor-intensive processing and fabrication to developing countries. The recipient countries also profit from the arrangement financially but at a social price. The arrangement can put great strains on centuries-old societal structures in the recipient countries.
As world population grows, as energy costs increase, as time becomes more valuable, and as resources become depleted or discovered, societies need economic systems that are more efficient and responsive. It is particularly important, therefore, for students to understand world patterns and networks of economic interdependence and to realize that traditional patterns of trade, human migration, and cultural and political alliances are being altered as a consequence of global interdependence.
Competing for control of large and small areas of Earth's surface is a universal trait among societies and has resulted in both productive cooperation and destructive conflict between groups over time. The geographically informed person has a general understanding of the nature and history of the forces of cooperation and conflict on Earth and the spatial manifestation of these forces in political and other kinds of divisions of Earth's surface. This understanding enables the individual to perceive how and why different groups have divided, organized, and unified areas of Earth's surface.
Divisions are regions of Earth's surface over which groups of people establish control for purposes of politics, administration, religion, and economics. Each such region usually has an area, a name, and a boundary. In the past even small groups inhabiting vast territories divided space in accordance with their cultural values and life-sustaining activities. For them some spaces were sacred, others were devoted to hunting or gathering, and still others were intended for shelter and socializing. In present-day urban, industrial societies, earning a livelihood, owning or renting a home in a safe neighborhood, getting a drink of clean water, buying food, being able to travel safely within one's own community - all of these activities are linked to how Earth is divided by different groups for different purposes.
Often, conflicts over how to divide and organize parts of Earth's space have involved control of resources (e.g., Antarctica or the ocean floor), control of strategic routes (e.g., the Panama or Suez Canals or the Dardanelles), or the domination of other peoples (e.g., European colonialism in Africa). Language, religion, political ideologies, national origins, and race motivate conflicts over how territory and resources will be developed, used, and distributed. Conflicts over trade, human migration and settlement, and exploitation of marine and land environments reflect how Earth's surface is divided into fragments controlled by different political and economic interest groups.
The primary political division of Earth is by state sovereignty - a particular government is recognized by others as having supreme authority over a carefully delimited territory and the population and resources within that space. With the exception of Antarctica, Earth's surface is exhaustively partitioned by state sovereignty. These political divisions are recognized by the United Nations and its member states, which discuss and act on issues of mutual interest, especially international peace and security. However, the partitioning is not mutually exclusive. Some nations exert competing claims to certain areas (e.g., the islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, which are claimed by Great Britain as the Falkland Islands and by Argentina as the Malvinas).
Regional alliances among nations for military, political, cultural, or economic reasons constitute another form of the division of Earth's surface. Among these many alliances are the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Caribbean Community and Common Market, the Council of Arab Economic Unity, and the European Union. In addition, numerous multinational corporations divide Earth's space and compete with each other for resource development, manufacturing, and the distribution of goods and services. And non-governmental organizations such as the International Red Cross and various worldwide religious groups divide space to administer their programs.
Events of the twentieth century illustrate that the division of Earth's surface among different groups pursuing diverse goals continues unabated at all scales of human activity. World wars, regional wars, civil wars, and urban riots often are manifestations of the intensity of feeling humans hold for the right to divide Earth according to their particular perceptions and values. Traditionally, most territorial disputes have been over the land surface, but with the increasing value of resources in the oceans and even outer space, political division of these spaces has become a topic of international debate. Cooperation and conflict will occur in all of these spatial contexts.
At smaller spatial scales, land-use zones in municipalities, administrative districts for airports and other essential services such as water supply and garbage disposal, and school districting within counties, states, and provinces are all examples of the local division of space. Franchise areas, regional divisions of national and multinational corporations, and free-trade zones indicate the economic division of space. City neighborhood associations, suburban homeowners' associations, civic and volunteer organization districts, and the divisions of neighborhood space by youth gangs on the basis of socioeconomic status, race, or national origin illustrate the power of social and cultural divisions of space.
The interlocking systems for dividing and controlling Earth's space influence all dimensions of people's lives, including trade, culture, citizenship and voting, travel, and self-identity. Students must understand the genesis, structure, power, and pervasiveness of these divisions to appreciate their role within a world that is both globally interdependent and locally controlled.
Geographers and historians agree that the human story must be told within the context of three intertwine points of view - space, environment, and chronology. The geographically informed person understands the importance of bringing the spatial and environmental focus of geography to bear on the events of history and vice versa, and the value of learning about the geographies of the past.
An understanding of geography can inform an understanding of history in two important ways. First, the events of history take place within geographic contexts. Second, those events are motivated by people's perceptions, correct or otherwise, of geographic contexts. By exploring what the world was like and how it was perceived at a given place at a given time, the geographically informed person is able to interpret major historical issues. For example, why did the land invasions of Russia by Sweden under Charles XII, France under Napoleon, and Germany under Hitler all fail? And why did people want to build the Panama and Suez Canals?
Answering such questions requires a geographic approach to the spatial organization of the world as it existed then and as that world was seen by the people of those times. In the case of the land invasions of Russia, the failure of the invaders can be linked to the dimensions, conditions, and constraints of the physical and human environments involved: the harsh weather conditions to be endured, the prevalence of rivers and marshes to be crossed, the vehicle-impeding mud to be overcome, the vast distances to be traversed, the shortages of food and other supplies, and the hostility, determination, and home-ground advantage of the defenders. As all three invasions demonstrated, space and environment form a context within which people make choices.
The geographic approach to the past also requires looking at the ways in which different people understood and assessed the physical and human geographical features of their spatial and environmental contexts. In the case of the Panama and Suez Canals, the geographic approach involves an assessment of how people and governments perceived and valued transportation costs in terms of both money and time, the topography and geology of the area, the available technology and labor force, the political forces operating in Central America, Europe, and Southwest Asia, and the economic returns that would ensue. Such an assessment leads to understanding that the canals were constructed because it was determined that the efforts and costs would be worthwhile in terms of the resulting economic and political gains.
Looking at the past geographically requires that attention be given to the beliefs and attitudes of the peoples of bygone times regarding the environment, human migration, land use, and especially their own rights and privileges versus those of others. Such information can be obtained through the use of contemporary newspapers and other firsthand accounts. It also can be obtained through the study of visible remains of buildings and other facilities, which offer clues to what occurred and why. A careful geographical analysis of today's cultural and physical landscapes is a valuable resource for learning about the past.
The geographies of past times carry important messages for today's people. The events of human history have been played out on a vast and complex geographic stage, and countless generations have had to make the best of what Earth has provided in the form of climate, land and water resources, plants and animals, and transportation routes; all of these things are shaped by the ongoing interactions of physical and human systems and have created the contexts in which history has unfolded. The study of history, without these rich contexts, is one-dimensional. Understanding the geographies of past times, therefore, is as important as understanding the geography of the present. Students must appreciate that viewing the past from both spatial and chronological points of view can lead to a greater awareness and depth of understanding of physical and human events, and is an essential ingredient in the interpretation of the world of today. Students must also understand that the geographic approach helps to explain why events did happen in a particular way but not necessarily why they must have happened in that way.
Geography is for life and not simply an exercise for its own sake. As the world becomes both more complex and more interconnected - as a result of economic development, population growth, technological advancement, and increased cooperation (and, to some extent, conflict) - the need for geographic knowledge, skills, and perspectives increases among the world's peoples. Geography is the key to nations, peoples, and individuals being able to develop a coherent understanding of the causes, meanings, and effects of the physical and human events that occur - and are likely to occur - on Earth's surface.
Consequently, the practical applications of geography (along with other aspects of geographic literacy) need to be fostered in all students in preparation for life as the responsible citizens and leaders of tomorrow.
Through its spatial emphasis, geography enables students to comprehend spatial patterns and spatial contexts; connections and movements between places; the integration of local, regional, national, and global scales; diversity; and systems. Through its ecological emphasis, geography enables students to comprehend physical processes and patterns; ecosystems; the physical interconnections between local and global environments; and the impact of people on the physical environment.
Taken together, these sets of understandings enable students to pose and answer geographic questions about the spatial organization of the world in which they live. At a local and personal level students need to understand the reasons for and implications of decisions about such issues as community recycling programs, the loss of agricultural land to new housing, the choice between spending tax dollars on a sewage treatment plant or housing for senior citizens, the expansion of the runways of a local airport, or the introduction of air quality standards. They also need to be aware of the impact of such decision-making on their own lives and the lives of others, and that eventually, as community members and voting citizens, they will be asked to participate in the decision making process. Such participation demands the knowledge and judgment of geographically informed people who know where to find relevant information, how to evaluate it, how to analyze it, and how to represent it.
Geographic literacy also has great significance at a more global and less personally immediate level. With a solid foundation in the interlinked knowledge, skills, and perspectives of geography, students will be better able to analyze and reach informed opinions about a variety of issues - ranging from the implications of resource depletion and the economic and social tensions caused by exponential population growth to what will happen within the family of nations as old political structures change, new alliances are formed, and realignments cause mass migration of refugees seeking asylum, security, and economic opportunity.
With a solid understanding of geography, people are better able to decide where to live and work, how and where to travel, and how to assess the world in spatial terms. In a world where people are competing for territory, resources, markets, and economic positions, knowing too little about geography is a liability, which compromises the capacity of people to function successfully at home or abroad. Creating effective and lasting solutions to the world's pressing problems requires that today's students mature into adults who can make skilled and informed use of geographic knowledge, skills, and perspectives to identify possible solutions, predict their consequences, and implement the best solutions. That is why it is imperative that all students in the United States achieve geographic literacy.
The above material is from Geograpy
for Life: The National Geography Standards, 1994. The Geography Education
1994 National Geographic Societly, Wahington, D.C.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Goeographic Society.