Wednesday, March 08, 2006

It's the Geography, Stupid!

A high school geography teacher in Colorado, and the student who taped his anti-Bush rant in class, are getting their "15 minutes of fame" this week. Of course, the whole issue is much ado about nothing, but politicians and the media (liberal and conservative) have seized on the issue as a platform for bellowing their position at the other end of the political spectrum. What is somewhat hidden in all of the hoopla is the fact that American schools are woefully derelict in their responsibility to actually TEACH the BASICS. I have no problem with an elective course, descriptively titled, challenging students to examine issues critically and then to make up their own minds on where they stand on those issues. The problem I have is that you can't participate in a course like that unless you have an educational foundation in the BASICS. Case (somewhat) in point: My daughter's fourth grade class spent the better part of a week studying China and its peoples' writing, food, clothing, and love of the Panda. At the end of the week, she, and the rest of her classmates, could not point to China on a world map.

I have always believed the refrain, "Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it." To which I would add the corollary, "Those who do not understand geography cannot understand history."

The geography of a place; its location, resources, physical features, and climate, is often the most significant factor in the history of the people who live in that place. Would the British colonies in the New World have developed into the current world's superpower if they had been scattered across the islands of the Caribbean instead of along the edge of one of the most challengingly diverse and resource rich continents on the planet? Arguably, had western Europeans not supplanted the existing native populations in North and South America, those people would have eventually developed technologically to the point that they could have harnessed the full power inherent in the resources of the land. The "Native Americans" were a very adaptive and intelligent people--they took horses brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 1500's and developed a "horse culture" that rivaled Old World horse cultures that had existed for millennia; and they took firearms and gave the expansionist former British colonists fits for nearly a century (just ask Custer how effectively they used that technology). The Maya, Inca, and Aztec in what is now called "Latin America" were even more advanced than their northern cousins, with architecture and culture in some cases more advanced than that of the European nations from whom the conquistadors and their ilk came. And, contrary to "pop culture history," Anglo-American cavalry and cowboys did not "kill all the Indians"--smallpox did most of the dirty work. Smallpox so decimated the Native American populations that they did not have the numbers to resist the Anglo tide sweeping west, and smallpox was so horribly effective because the GEOGRAPHICAL isolation of the New World had prevented development of immunities from this Old World disease. See? Geography is the key!

I could go on and on, as my family will attest. They have long ago learned not to ask any question of me that could possibly give me the excuse to lecture (for the minimum required 30 minutes) on the geographical and historical background necessary to understand the answer.
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