This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 28, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
For someone who has always hated to travel, it’s rather odd that not only did I travel quite a bit in my lifetime, but also that geography was my favorite subject in elementary school.
Think about it. Here’s a kid attending Dime Box Rural Elementary School, who, in the fourth grade, had never traveled outside Lee County, Texas, except to Caldwell, which was just across the County Line from Dime Box. But because of the enthusiasm of my teacher, I loved geography and thought learning about the many places in the world to be totally exciting.
Drawing, coloring, and labeling maps were more fun to me than diagramming sentences in my English class, and I loved diagramming! In the geography class, we learned to draw the continents and to identify the countries and major cities within each continent. Strange as it may now seem, my favorite continent to draw, color, and label was South America. Since age 8, I have known where countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, etc., were located, and could quickly find them on a map.
So, it sort of surprised me when I taught English literature that high school and college kids did not know where London was located, or, for that matter, England. Perhaps, in the 1940’s, we were more interested in where places were located, because we were in the middle of World War II, and London was bombed, and, later, cities in Germany were bombed. My mother bought a globe, and we would look up these cities and countries on the globe, both at school and at home.
There have been a number of countries in the news lately, — China, North Korea, Venezuela, Honduras, and Mexico, to mention a few. As I am writing this, the situation in Venezuela is very volatile and dangerous; the country seems to be on the verge of a civil war. People are hungry, and the President of Venezuela is not allowing humanitarian aid to be brought across the border from Columbia, resulting in confrontation and violence. He has severed diplomatic relations with Brazil which also borders Venezuela. The Vice President of the United States is flying to Columbia to meet with South American leaders.
Because what happens in Venezuela has an effect on the rest of the world, us included, we need to know where it is. Because of studying geography in the fourth grade, I know where Venezuela, Columbia, and Brazil are located. When Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina, was elected Pope, I knew where Argentina was. When I learned that some of the greatest poets today writing in the Spanish language were from Chile, I knew where Chile was.
We Americans worry a great deal about our children’s proficiency in math, science, and language arts, and those fields of study are indeed important; but we should also encourage our young people to study geography. Most people cannot afford to learn geography by actually traveling to many places, but anybody can afford to study maps as we did in the fourth grade.
When large numbers of folks from Honduras travel to the Southern border of our country, because they want to live here and work here, it is reasonable to want to know where Honduras is. No, it doesn’t border Venezuela, because it’s not in South America, but in Central America, which is part of the continent of North America. Of all the countries in our hemisphere, we Texans probably know the geography of our neighbor, Mexico, the best, and have traveled to many Mexican towns and cities over the years, may even have relatives living there. What happens in Mexico can greatly affect us in Texas, both good things and bad things. My purpose in writing this is not political, it is not to argue for or against the Wall between us and Mexico, but to stress the need for knowing geography.
As I said, we truly need math, science and language arts to even survive in the world today, but, as life becomes more and more international on this planet, we need also to know basic geography.
Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.