Geography in American History Courses

By Thornton, Stephen J. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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Geography in American History Courses

Thornton, Stephen J., Phi Delta Kappan

Geography has long been a stepchild of U.S. education. Now, with accountability pressures shrinking the curriculum, there is even less of a chance that geography will take its place as a separate subject. Mr. Thornton suggests that the best solution might be to integrate a geography strand into American history courses, which seem to hold a secure place in the schools.


ALTHOUGH U.S. troops have been on the ground there since 2003, as of 2006 only 37% of young Americans could find Iraq on a map. (1) Laments that young Americans are geographically illiterate have been around for a long time, of course. Every now and then, some test or poll reveals how little geography young Americans know. The usual response is alarm. Critics, who range from businesspeople and politicians to geographers and educators, rail against the failings of schools in teaching geography.

Today, geography faces stiff curricular competition from the continuing emphasis of policy makers on the three R's and science. In many places, this competition seems to have squeezed out any systematic attention to geography or the other social studies, particularly in elementary school. What's more, it doesn't look like things are going to turn around anytime soon.

Although I cannot do much about the amount of geography states and school districts require, I propose one step that may help improve school geography: meaningfully integrate the subject into the teaching of American history, which enjoys a secure place in school programs. (2) This step may do more to ensure that solid attention is paid to geography than the patchwork of reforms of the past few decades, which have varied in their intrinsic worth, breadth of dissemination, and effectiveness of implementation. (3) Curiously, despite its intuitive appeal, the idea of teaching geography in American history courses has seldom attracted sustained attention.

In addition to creating a new space for geography, this approach offers an educational bonus: enriching the meaning of American history. As recent scholarship attests, (4) contemporary historians are showing fresh appreciation for Frederick Jackson Turner's insight that "the master key to American history is to be found in the relation of geography to that history." (5) Moreover, with some imagination, it may be possible to incorporate a significant amount of geography into the standard American history survey courses without adding to their length.

Before proceeding, I wish to underscore that I am not suggesting that we do away with geography as a separate subject where it already exists or that geography be taught solely in history courses. Rather, I am proposing that one possible way of helping to improve geographic education could be its meaningful integration with history. Such integration, at a minimum, would be far more educationally defensible than well-publicized attempts to improve geography through such methods as geography bees, which do little or nothing to build substantial knowledge of geographic concepts and relationships.


Young people who don't know Berlin from Baghdad or can't locate the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf on a globe are not a new phenomenon in American education. Even more significant, however, is the lack of understanding of geographic relationships. A recent news report about security at the nation's ports, for example, pointed out that few Americans appreciate how much of their daily livelihood depends on seaborne goods. Lucy Sprague Mitchell's description of children in the 1930s living in a world of disconnected "end-products" still seems apt. (6)

It also seems to be overlooked--or forgotten--that decades of reports, including those from prestigious task forces and learned societies, have bemoaned geographic illiteracy but have generally failed to shift the priorities of policy makers. To understand why geography--which is, after all, routinely flagged by authorities from various ideological perspectives as "basic," along with math, English, science, and history--fares so poorly in American education requires a brief look back.

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