Originally published by Brian Baskerville on About.com Geography
While the focus of this article is American, there are many lessons for Canadian geographers as well.
Despite geography's popularity through venues like National Geographic
Magazine, many individuals still do not understand what geography is, what it
studies, and why it is important – especially this day in age. Through a series
of interview questions, Dr. Charles Gritzner sheds light on this ancient, but
seemingly misunderstood discipline.
Dr. Gritzner received his doctorate in geography/anthropology from Louisiana
State University and taught at the college level for over 50 years, becoming
South Dakota State University’s sixth Distinguished Professor in 1993. As an
educator, he taught seventy-three different courses, which, he is told, may be a
record in any discipline. He has authored or co-authored 35 books, published
more than 150 articles and book chapters, and won numerous awards for his
service to the discipline. Above all, he’s loved by his former students for the
way he made learning about the world interesting and engaging.
Dr. Gritzner, you’re interested in many things from culture and
energy to natural resources and climate. Why did you choose Geography as a
profession as opposed to history or political or environmental
My response to this question may seem a bit strange! In a sense, I didn’t
make a deliberate choice or even thoughtfully consider the merits of becoming a
geographer, as opposed to pursuing a career in some other sciences. During the
first two years of college I was a physical education major and the curriculum
required a social science course, so I enrolled in an Introduction to Geography
After the first class, in which the instructor explained the nature of
geography and what we would be studying, I left knowing that I was a geographer
and had been much of my life, without knowing that geography existed as a field
of study! I loved travel, whether actual or vicarious (e.g. National Geographic
magazine); as a youngster, I would spend hours studying maps and, in fact, drew
many of my own of places both real and imaginary; having grown up in the
country, I had a pretty sound idea of natural processes and “how things
Geography, more than any other field of study, ties things together –
anything on Earth’s surface can be studied geographically. As such, geography,
like history, is a method, a way of organizing and analyzing information
spatially (vs. the historian’s temporal framework). As geographers, we must
understand the basic elements of all the social sciences (population, economy, society, government, and so-forth). To understand the
present, one also must look to the past. The historical perspective allows one
to better understand how the various elements have contributed to the creation
of present-day conditions. So as a geographer, one does need to know about the
history, political, and environmental sciences of Earth’s diverse mosaic of
Many people today still think Geography is all about capitals and
rivers. While that’s part of the discipline, it’s far from the whole story. How
can geographers explain their discipline without all the complex
Very simply! Frequently during my fifty year career, students from other
subject areas asked me what it would take for them to transfer into geography.
For most of them, my advice was, “Take what you know and think about it
spatially.” At the most basic level, geography can be defined as the study of
“What is where, why there, and why care.” The “what,” of course, does include
the capitals and rivers, but it involves so much more. In many respects,
geography is the most complex of all disciplines. To be a good geographer: one
must have a basic understanding of the fundamental elements of both the natural
and social sciences; we must know: how the various elements interact to create
the differences that exist from place to place, the names of various features,
processes, and conditions, and finally (this is where geography comes in) we
must know where all of this is located, why it’s there, and of what importance
is it to us and others.
Geography is great and all, but now that we have Google Earth and GPS
everything is mapped and explored. Is Geography still relevant?
Google Earth, GPS, GIS (Geographic Information
Systems), and other such aids are tools and techniques used to study Earth’s
varied features in a geographical context. They, themselves, are not geography
any more than a physician’s stethoscope is medicine. Today we have the ability
to know precisely where we are on earth and technology can tell us that.
Geography, though, tells us what it is like, how it came to be that way, and why
it is important.
When students choose majors at college, they are often asked what
they will do with what they learn. What does it mean to have a geographical
education and what can a person do with it?
Geographers often face several problems when entering the job market. First
and foremost, many employers (and many Americans) do not understand the
tremendous contribution that geographers can offer to the workplace. Second,
by virtue of their training, geographers tend to be a “jack of all trades and
master of none.” Yet the breadth of knowledge and the ability to apply this
knowledge to places, locations, and conditions, gives geographers a huge
competitive edge over those educated in other disciplines. What we find is that
once a firm or agency hires a geographer and learns what he or she can
contribute, others are then hired. Geographic understanding is particularly
critical for those involved in any way with international relations, be it
business, politics, intelligence, travel or other involvement.
According to a recent report by the American Geographical Society,
Americans want more geography than they are getting in school. Why doesn’t the
United States put the same emphasis on geographic education as other
This is a rather difficult question for which an answer is long and complex.
Briefly, when most “new” Americans arrived on these shores, they had severed
ties with their past. They soon realized, however, that they had no history of
their own in this “new” land. To overcome this void, Americans busily set about
the task of creating their own history, including solidly establishing history
in the curriculum at the expense of geography. With an abundance of natural
resources, seemingly unlimited space, and little in the way of hostile
neighbors, our forefathers saw little need to learn geography, or to know about
other places. One explanation of geography that may apply here is “Geography is
learning for living.” In many places, knowing about the world beyond one’s own
borders is imperative for survival. But today many, if not most Americans, feel
little need to learn about the world beyond our borders.
As geography enthusiasts, we are always trying to sharpen the
geographical lens through which we view the world. Can you give us some advice,
from your own experiences, on how to start thinking and viewing the world like a
In an increasingly complex and troubled world, it is imperative that citizens
possess a fairly detailed “mental map” of the world and
the contents and conditions of its various places and regions. To think
geographically, one must first be curious, asking questions such as “Why is this
place like it is and what role does location play in creating various conditions
found there?” The answer is undoubtedly related to a combination of physical,
cultural, and historical factors. Basically, to think about and view the world
as a geographer, one must seek to learn as much as possible about other people
and places and ask: What are they like? Why are they like that? What problems do
they face? And, of what importance is all of that to us? My advice is to read,
watch, listen, question, be ever curious, and care!