AT Selvidge Middle School in Ballwin, Mo., seventh-graders are
making papier-mache globes showing the seven continents and four
oceans along with major cities, rivers, and mountains.
Yet the goal of this world geography class is not to memorize
where major cities and other landmarks fall on the globe, says
geography teacher John Lucas.
"A lot of people get very upset if a student can't pinpoint
exactly where Paris is," says Mr. Lucas, a large, gregarious man
who is the school's teacher of the year. "But given the
coordinates, my students can locate it in a heartbeat. And that's
the important thing."
Here, and in school districts across the country, geography
education is moving away from the traditional "name that state
capital" approach to a richer mix of knowledge.
In this suburban St. Louis school district, all seventh-graders
are required to take geography. They spend half the year on
"physical geography," learning what falls where on the globe, and
the other half on "human geography," the study of governmental
and religious patterns around the world, for example.
"When my students leave this course, I want them to know how to
get around on a globe and interpret a map," Lucas says. "But I
also want them to understand that people are a product of their
A nationwide resurgence of interest in geography began in the
early 1980s. An increasing number of school districts and states
are making the subject a curriculum requirement, particularly at
the middle-school or junior-high level.
"The United States woke up about 12 to 15 years ago and
realized that the economy had been internationalized," says Ruth
Shirey, executive director of the National Council for Geographic
Education. "What happened in other countries mattered to us in
economic terms in ways that had never been true before. The
resurgence of geography is rooted in that realization."
International surveys also raised awareness about the need for
improved geography education in the US. In 1989, a Gallup survey
ranked Americans aged 18 to 24 last in geographic knowledge,
compared with their international counterparts. In 1990, only 50
percent of 12th graders knew that the Panama Canal cuts sailing
time between New York and San Francisco.
Major geography organizations have dedicated themselves recently
to improving geography education. Geography was one of the five
original subjects included in the federal "Goals 2000: Educate
"That gave the discipline incredible visibility," says Roger
Downs, a professor of geography at Pennsylvania State University,
"because we were on a par with history, and science, and math."
Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society,
has taken a lead role in supporting training for geography
teachers. The Geographic Society helps fund geography alliances in
every state to provide geography materials and training workshops
For many years, geography was lumped in with social studies. …