Better living through geography

A biker climbs Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

By Silvio Laccetti

It took six decades, three degrees, and a career of college teaching before I finally finished my fourth-grade education.

It was in fourth grade that I first studied geography. Not alone among my classmates, I was fascinated by the great wonder and bounty of America, my homeland. Particularly engaging were the special natural places that tickled my childhood imagination: great canyons, sandstone arches, natural bridges, colorful caverns, timeless trees, majestic mountains, and mighty rivers and waterfalls. Someday, I thought, I would explore them all.

And so I did, finally getting to those remaining few out-of-the-way (for me) places. Last fall, I meandered up and around New Hampshire's Mount Washington (the highest point in the Northeast) and felt the cold-water sprays of Lake Superior on my face.

I recently completed my home-state geography course by flying in a Meridian turboprop over many of my peaceful, green-leafed New Jersey fishing haunts, which I hitherto had mapped only from the ground.

Over my lifetime, the places haven't changed much, but the teaching of geography has - a lot. Surveys show that today's young people "don't know much about geography," as Sam Cooke sang long ago. Indeed, one survey showed that about half of American children couldn't point out New York on a map! This deficiency is emblematic of the social and political problems America faces today.

One root of the problem is that, unlike in my grammar school days, geography is not taught as a single subject. Instead, it is rolled into social studies, a plethora of loosely related subjects all fighting for space in the curriculum, ensuring that geography gets short shrift.

Teaching geography as a single subject would benefit Americans in numerous ways. The study raises and answers existential questions: Where am I? What is this place? It offers symbolic meanings, fires the imagination, and evokes consideration of higher laws and powers. Pondering such questions is a lifetime improvement assignment.

Other areas of the subject also inform lifelong understanding. Urban geography questions the best and worst of our man-made environments. Economic geography explores changing resources and environments. The resurgence of geopolitical thinking and the explosion of geographic technology offer pathways toward understanding global change.

Finally, geographical understanding helps us reassert our American identity in an era of corporatism and globalism.

Geography has its own "three R's": reverence, restoration, revitalization. Consider our national parks. As Ken Burns' documentary on the subject points out, the founders of the system expected park visitors to return home reenergized, with a deeper feeling for the nation. These wild and majestic places were thought to be character builders for citizens.

To know our place in America is to know its great places. They tell us we are home. They tell us we belong. They remind us that it is good to be here.

Changing the landscape of geography studies and knowledge is no easy task. But there are many dedicated local and national groups sponsoring numerous programs to counter current trends. One of the most innovative is the National Geographic Bee. This year's winner was a New Jersey boy, 14-year-old Karan Menon.

Another initiative, also from the National Geographic Society, is its celebration of 100 years of the society's maps. (Remember them?) Google "maps" picture your route from A to B, but physical maps show you the bigger picture - how a state or nation is put together and how everything fits in.

Flying over New Jersey on my recent trip, I focused on the bigger picture as we followed Interstate 78, Spruce Run Reservoir on the left, Round Valley's waters on the right. But 7,000 feet directly below, something jutted jarringly out of the landscape, its tan roof glazed by the low-angle rays of a weakening sun. This glowing monument was my favorite McDonald's, in Clinton, N.J., a haven of senior drinks and grilled-chicken salads for the tired fisherman! Then I had a scary vision of McDonald's and other franchises as the map markers of our new corporate globalism.

As Woody Guthrie expressed so passionately, America is a magnificent land that belongs to you and me. That feeling of wonder, that sense of place is rooted in the geography of the land and the imagination it inspires in its citizens. From its hidden wild places to its urban parks and squares, America the beautiful awaits us. This summer, expand your consciousness and experience the 3 R's of geography.

Silvio Laccetti is a retired Stevens Institute of Technology professor of history and social sciences, and the author of "An American Commentary," which was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal.