What happened to the American geography department?

By Benjamin Sacks

Today, Dartmouth College remains the only Ivy League institution to maintain a distinct geography department. (c) 2015 Wikimedia  Commons.

Today, Dartmouth College remains the only Ivy League institution to maintain a distinct geography department. (c) 2015 Wikimedia Commons.

Tim Hall et al.’s recent Area examination of the changing fortunes and distribution of British geography departments identified both shifts in scope and funding. The geography department was ‘neither stable historically nor universal in nature’, and has been subject to merging, reclassification, separation, and redistribution since the mid-1990s (p.58). This problem however is also the discipline’s trump card: inherently interdisciplinary, geography can stand on its own and be classified with other related disciplines without significantly threatening its future. The United Kingdom continues to dominate geographic research and study, leading most recognised international league tables (e.g., QS World University; THES). The 2013 ESRC-RGS-AHRC report into Britain’s standing within academic geography trumpeted the country’s extraordinary impact in primary (field) research, geographical theory, and GIS development, despite the fact that the number of free-standing geography departments dropped from 47 (1995) to 33 (2013). In sum, geography’s preeminent position in British higher research and education is guaranteed as long as further fiscal cuts are not implemented. Hall et al also noted other, mostly Commonwealth countries, where geography research and education has expanded or diversified since the end of the twentieth century.

The situation is unfortunately vastly different in the United States. Despite longstanding efforts by the National Geographic Society and the American Geographical Society to expand geography education at the secondary- and university-levels respectively, geography remains a little-studied or even -understood discipline. At present it remains the only major academic field not to receive national education funding. As recently as 2010 the National Assessment Governing Board admitted the failure of American geography education. ‘The consequence’, they conceded, was ‘widespread ignorance of our own country and of its place’ in the world. World events change the situation little. This time last year, Kyle Dropp (Dartmouth), Joshua Kertzer (Harvard), and Thomas Zeitzoff (Princeton) surveyed 2,066 Americans on their knowledge of Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Eighty-four per cent could not identify Ukraine on a world map. The average answer, calculated from all guesses, suggested that Ukraine was located somewhere in Western Europe and the Mediterranean – over 1,800 miles from its actual position. Distressingly, they uncovered a direct inverse correlation between knowledge and support for US military intervention. The less likely participants were able to accurately identify Ukraine’s geographical position, the more likely they wanted Washington to intervene on Kiev’s behalf.

In 1900, nearly all major American colleges and universities maintained active (even thriving) geography departments. Today, only one Ivy League university – Dartmouth – still hosts an independent department, and few programmes still exist at private universities. The situation at flagship public universities has fared somewhat better, largely thanks to their role as ‘land-grant’ institutions. The University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison stand out as particularly internationally competitive programmes. This dilemma is all the more worrying when one considers the importance and impact of United States’ foreign policy.

What accounted for this seismic change, particularly given the rapid expansion of international affairs programmes at the undergraduate and postgraduate level? In 1987 Neil Smith, then at Rutgers, examined the collapse of Harvard’s geography department following the end of the Second World War. Echoing Jean Gottmann’s declaration that the closure of the Harvard department was ‘a terrible blow’ from which American geography ‘has never completely recovered’, Smith recounted how Harvard president James Conant declared that ‘geography is not a university subject’, ignoring both British investment in the discipline and competing American universities own departments (159). Geographers on both sides of the Atlantic criticised Harvard’s decision, adding that the university had neglected the programme for at least a generation, crippling its scholarly output and the careers of its faculty even as knowledge of international studies, lands, and peoples rapidly expanded in importance. Other American private institutions soon followed Harvard’s decision to terminate the department. Yale’s programme dragged on – near death – until 1967; Pennsylvania incorporated theirs with Wharton Business School, only to close the department in 1963. Columbia’s department – easily the most prodigious of the Ivy League – finally ended in 1986 due to a lack of popularity and funding. The collapse of Columbia’s department evidenced the American geography education’s cyclical crisis: lack of investment in primary-level geography education led to little undergraduate or postgraduate interest in geography, which in turn led to calls for programme closures.

A positive example, however, remains: the United States Military Academy at West Point continues to require its students to undertake courses in environmental, human, and scientific (engineering) geography, a tradition established with the introduction of French geographical and engineering methodology at the Academy’s founding in 1802.

books_icon Tim Hall, Phil Toms, Mark McGuinness, Charlotte Parker, and Neil Roberts, ‘Where’s the Geography department? The changing administrative place of Geography in UK higher education‘, Area 47.1 (2015): 56-64.

books_icon Roger M Downs, ‘The NAEP Geography Report 2010: What Will We Do Next?‘ Journal of Geography 111.1 (Jan., 2011): 39-40.

books_icon Kyle Dropp, Joshua D Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff, ‘The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene’The Washington Post, 7 April 2014.

books_icon ‘Geography Framework for the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress’, National Assessment Governing Board, accessed 8 April 2015.

books_icon Neil Smith, ‘“Academic War over the Field of Geography”: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947-1951‘, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77.2 (Jun., 1987): 155-72.

2 thoughts on “What happened to the American geography department?

  1. Pingback: ICHC 2015: the global history of cartography | Geography Directions

  2. Pingback: GISCafe: From Quill Pens to GIS: The Career of a Geographer

Leave a Reply or Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s