From the piracy off the coast of Somalia to the war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the conflicts that catch the attention of American leaders and policy makers are increasingly being shifted to regions outside of the familiar Euro-American developed world. But most Americans cannot even identify the geographic locations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the core of current American foreign policy concerns, not to say the locations of other minor conflicts in Eastern Europe or Africa.
The lack of geographic knowledge by the common people will greatly hamper their understanding of international conflicts, thereby preventing them from acting as a check to the potential blunders and recklessness in the government’s decisions on foreign policy.
An active interest in foreign affairs cannot develop without an active understanding of where the important issues are occurring. Without this, the public cannot make valid or relevant critiques to international policies. People simply do not see the importance of those places in their daily lives, and thus they fail to pay attention to the policies, leaving policy makers a free hand to act unchecked.
Knowledge of geography is not simply about knowing the exact locations of different places. Much more importantly, it is an understanding of the economic and sociocultural boundaries of different regions. In a prominent example, the failure of the American people to question the federal government before and during the Iraq War is in part because of their lack of knowledge of Iraqi demographics. Too busy considering American military superiority, the American people were not able to see past Iraq as a one-man dictatorship. Through teaching of the so-called human geography, it is possible to see any region beyond its political boundaries and dive into the much more nuanced distinct separations in the mentalities of different peoples.
While Yale offers a strong emphasis on study abroad programs, simply traveling or even living abroad cannot be satisfactory as geographic education. As seen by the existence of countless American expatriate communities abroad and ethnic communities such as Chinatowns across America, people have strong tendencies to resist assimilation or even self-education in even their residential countries. The same cultural isolation can easily happen with Yale students abroad. In many instances, such a phenomenon can be attributed to the perception that knowledge of the resident country is not important enough for economic survival to be worth any time commitment for learning.
But such a view is completely incorrect, even from a purely practical manner. As a businessman or an NGO worker abroad, it is difficult to perform effectively if the locations of products or services are unknown, and it is certainly harder to earn the trust and support of the local populace if the cultural aspects of geography are not well understood.
On the other hand, new immigrants cannot possibly find a suitable job in a new country if they know little about the local social and business culture. The lack of geographic knowledge in such cases can quickly lead to economic problems.
The only method to systematically reduce such geographic ignorance is the dedication of specific courses and departments to study of geography at the collegiate level. While geographical studies are important components of area studies and other disciplines, those classes can only give the students a limited knowledge of one region or one aspect of geography as it pertains to the subject of instruction. Such partial knowledge of the world cannot give her future leaders enough flexibility in understanding the interrelatedness and relevance of different foreign affairs regarding all regions. And it certainly cannot give them the ability to work effectively at all local levels across the world as they become members of the increasingly integrated global economy.
In order to become astute observer of global political affairs and productive members of the shrinking international community, it is of critical importance that the students at Yale and other colleges throughout the world be introduced to a concentrated geographic education.
Xiaochen Su is a junior in Davenport College.