Social Education 55(6) pps. 371-373
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies
Darrell A. Norris
Many high school and college teachers in the United States feel uncomfortably squeezed by the call for heightened geographic awareness among students enrolled in social studies, core, or general education courses. On the one hand, we and our students reject the sheer aridity of rote learning place locations without context or rationale. On the other hand, our best efforts to convey geography's fundamental themes, its perspectives on facets of human society, its dimension in contemporary issues, and its approaches to theory building and problem solving are all hampered by our students' lack of general geographical knowledge. At all levels of social studies and college geography, we must surely seek a course that steers between the Scylla of rote memorization and the Charybdis of unanchored concept.
This is not a new challenge, and it is by no means confined to geography among the liberal arts. Perhaps one thing that distinguishes geography from other subjects is a still-active national concern about weak literacy in this field. Public perception tends to treat geography axiomatically as "knowing where places are," and this outlook may have been encouraged by some otherwise admirable initiatives to build high school geography instruction. A second quite distinctive feature about geography is that many social studies teachers have never formally studied the subject. The discipline has a definite responsibility to reach out with clear and useful curricular materials to thousands of social studies teachers who might otherwise take geography to be mere locational scaffolding.
My intent in this article is to describe a simple learning exercise that combines a goal of global understanding and appreciation with an added (but not obtrusive) benefit of building global knowledge. The exercise is based on students conducting a systematic inventory of their personal possessions, recording the results on individual world maps, and pooling the findings for analysis and discussion.
The State University of New York College at Geneseo is a selective four-year liberal arts institution with just over five thousand undergraduates, nearly all of whom come from homes in New York State. Despite exemplary high school averages at graduation (92 percent mean) and high combined SAT scores (1,170 average), entering first-year students at Geneseo exhibit unimpressive geographic awareness, based partly perhaps on the historically weak numbers of trained geographers in secondary and postsecondary New York State education.
A common undergraduate core at Geneseo requires thirty-two credit hours of approved courses in humanities, fine arts, natural science, critical reasoning, and social sciences. The college has approved thirty-eight core courses in the social sciences. Two of these are geography courses, which attract more than eight hundred students annually. In fact, two-thirds of Geneseo's students take at least one of these two courses, which are devoted to introductory human geography and third world regional studies.
Once exposed to geography as a university discipline, many Geneseo students go on to major in the subject. Virtually no entering first-year students or transfer students declare geography as an intended major. Nonetheless, close to one hundred majors are now in the geography program. In addition, many education majors have chosen geography as a subject field for certification purposes. More than half the seniors graduating in geography go on to graduate school in the subject or in closely related fields such as environmental studies or planning.
Both faculty disposition and exceptional student talent result in original research as a pervasive feature of course content and requirements at SUNY Geneseo. Collaborative research initiatives requiring conscientious student participation rarely seem to flounder.
To build students' awareness and appreciation of global interdependence through heightened sensitivity to the international origins of their personal possessions.
In the last ten minutes of a class period, give students a world base map with national boundaries marked (omit names of countries if students have ready access to atlases or a wall map). At Geneseo we print the base map with the bold title, My Worldly Goods.
Instruct students to inventory their possessions and label them by origin, confining their survey to items in their dormitory room, apartment, or home. To date I have instructed them to classify goods into one of the following three categories: (1) clothing, including footwear; (2) equipment, including all battery or plug-in items; and (3) all other possessions. Teachers can easily modify this simple classification to include other categories such as toys and games.
Students locate the origins of their possessions on the world map, using dot symbols (e.g., circle, triangle, square) to distinguish between the three categories of personal effects. I would suggest that students aim for a sample of at least fifteen items per person. The world maps are collected at the following class meeting.
At Geneseo, Robert Wells, a student assistant in the Geography Department, has compiled the results for my introductory human geography classes since fall 1989. Tallying the data from the world maps could be a modest group assignment for a social studies class. Indeed, selecting appropriate regional categories would constitute a learning exercise in itself.
When you have compiled the origins for the entire class, effective discussion of the results will require approximately forty-five minutes to cover the principal themes that emerge. You may find it useful to circulate the results reported here to elicit some comparative comments.
I have conducted this survey in three successive semesters since fall 1989. To date 355 students have returned the forms (participation has been purely voluntary, and the survey return rate 75 percent or better). The students have inventoried a grand total of 7,479 items, averaging between 20 and 23 per person each semester. Male and female students have been equally conscientious in completing the survey.
First reactions to the results are always tinged with surprise, at both the variety of countries represented and the unexpected findings for familiar objects. Brian's wallet turns out to be Uruguayan, his shorts Egyptian, his radio Malaysian, and his steam iron Mexican. Brenda's wardrobe includes a Bangladeshi shirt and Romanian boots. Among the belongings she brought to college were a Chinese telephone, a New Jersey clock radio, and a French print. Heidi wears a Taiwanese-made business suit and Yugoslavian running shoes. Debra weighs in on a Canadian scale, takes United States cough syrup, and serves with an English tray. Robert discovers his picture frame is Thai and his shaver Austrian. Tom owns Jamaican bookends, a Korean soccer ball, and an Argentinian notepad. Barb's camera is Brazilian and her luggage Filipino. As this peculiar and complex pattern unfolds, I am careful to prod the students into contemplating just how much of their most personal world depends on far-flung skills and resources we too easily take for granted.
The United States is the leading origin of Geneseo students' possessions, accounting for just over one-third of their inventoried effects (table 1). The students are usually impressed by the combined tally for Asian newly industrialized countries (NICs) such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These four origins account for more than one-fifth of the inventoried possessions (table 1). Comprising over 9 percent of the total, Chinese-made goods have declined somewhat in relative frequency in the long shadow of the recent violent confrontation at Tiananmen Square. Nonetheless, my students are visibly perplexed by the sheer number and variety of Chinese products they have recently (and often unknowingly) bought or been given. Preconceptions of Japanese dominance of United States consumer goods imports are effectively undermined by the student surveys. Overall, Japan accounts for just 8 percent of their personal effects. But electrically operated equipment makes up 70 percent of these items (table 1).
Several regions stand out as clothing exporters in a mold that at one time characterized the NICs. Examples include Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil, Central America, the Caribbean, and the nations of south Asia, including India (table 1). I try to prompt students to forecast which countries are most likely to diversify and build from a narrow base dominated by clothing exports. Indonesia is often their "most favored nation" as a future prospect.
The students' possessions from Europe are fairly evenly split between items of apparel and a miscellany of items other than equipment. The same is true of the things they own that come from Australia, Canada, and the United States. The common element seems to be that of advanced, broadly based, high labor cost economies producing specialized goods and promoting a high-quality image. Also, many of the students' effects from these sources are nondurable goods such as personal care products, fragrances, specialty foods, accessories, stationery items, and poster art. The composition of the students' effects made in Mexico or South Korea is already strikingly similar to the category mix for goods produced in Europe. So far, goods from Eastern Europe have surfaced infrequently, and Soviet consumer products hardly ever (table 1). Your students should be ready to debate possible international trade effects of European unity and an economic renaissance in the former Soviet bloc.
The survey findings strikingly echo the persistent role of Africa, the Near East, and much of Latin America and the Caribbean as highly peripheral sources of primary commodities rather than finished goods. Almost nothing the students possess comes from these regions (table 1). Granted, personal effects inventories taken by a narrow age group of non-homeowners are certainly not sure evidence of the entire picture of United States imports. The disparities, however, are themselves a rich lode of class discussion (table 2). Every Asian nation except Japan is more prominently represented in Geneseo students' effects than in United States import ties. The reverse is true for much of Europe, especially Germany. Challenging students to explain glaring discrepancies for China and Canada helps to clarify the distinction between easily identifiable labeled consumer goods and much less obvious imports such as electrical power supply, forest products, newsprint, and "domestic" automobiles. If anything, resorting to comparisons with aggregate evidence helps to validate the meaning of an exercise that began with scrutiny of labels, tags, and plates the students had scarcely noticed before.
As a teenager in England, I learned much geography as a wholesale fruit and vegetable buyer for my family's retail stores. Before I attended university, I had necessarily memorized the international origins, seasons, and normal prices of Britain's fresh produce imports, and had retained similar information for Britain's domestic production. Labels and what could be gleaned from them were not merely a passing interest; they were a principal feature of my job outside high school. I always felt that economic geography as a university subject came alive for me in ways out of reach of my student colleagues. They had not enjoyed the privilege and wonderment of handling Egyptian potatoes, New Zealand apples, or Cypriot grapes on slick cobblestone in the warehouse district of a provincial English city. Global interdependence held then, and holds now, the promise of a richer life predicated on exchange for mutual benefit, a world economic system based on comparative advantage. Free trade issues are an obvious topic of debate for college or advanced high school students who complete this exercise.
In this exercise I have tried to recapture for my students at least some of that sense of privilege and wonderment I felt on damp market mornings. It is disquieting to consider that the international effort that sustains daily life in the United States goes largely unnoticed.
Darrell A. Norris is Associate Professor of Geography at the State University of New York College at Geneseo, in Geneseo, New York 14454.