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1.2.11

Bad Geography in the Geography Honor Society

I realize I've left the "Pathologization of male sexuality" series idle for a long time -- the beginning of the semester has been busier than expected, and I have a lot of comment threads on other blogs to read through to pull together my arguments in the next installment(s) of that series. I am also behind on blogging some other things, such as this post, which I meant to make in November.

Gamma Theta Upsilon is the international honor society for the discipline of geography. I am the advisor to Slippery Rock University's newly-reconstituted GTU chapter, so this fall I was reviewing the induction ceremony. It includes the following paragraph as part of the explanation of GTU's symbolism:

The Gamma Theta Upsilon badge is a key that signifies the achievement of quality in a field of Geography. The base or body of the key is a seven-sided shield, with each bevel bearing the initial of one of the Earth’s great landmasses. Beginning with Europe at the top, there are the continents of the Old or Eastern World: Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, On the left side of the key are North America, South America, and Antarctica, the three continents brought into recorded geographic knowledge as humanity expanded westward from the Old World to the New World.


It would be nice if the honor society for geography had symbolism consistent with current geographical practice. In this paragraph I see two clear instances of Eurocentric metageography that contemporary geographers ought to discard.

First is the description of the Americas as being brought into recorded geographic knowledge through westward expansion. This is straight-up Eurocentrism. The Americas were brought into human knowledge through eastward expansion from Siberia across the Bering land bridge. Focusing on "recorded" knowledge in order to discount Native American discovery is Eurocentric, and wrong to boot -- the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas certainly recorded their geographical knowledge, and a not insignificant portion of early European knowledge of the Americas was simply cribbed from their Native guides.

Second is the perpetuation of the seven-continent scheme. The traditional division of the world into seven continents is meaningless. If a general-purpose division of the world is needed, most World Regional Geography textbooks end up with 10 or so regions, which defy traditional "continental" boundaries in order to better encompass similar cultural, economic, and physical features -- for example, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean are usually grouped with South America, while North Africa and Southwest Asia make up a region. And not only are the traditional continental boundaries outdated, the division of the Eurasian landmass into Europe and Asia perpetuates an idea of European exceptionalism. Dynamic, progressive, world-ruling Europe is distinguished from Asia, a mass that lumps together India, China, Iran, and more on the basis of their non-Europe-ness. (The textbook I'm using for World Regional Geography this semester divides Eurasia into 6 regions -- Europe, the former Soviet Union, Southwest Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia.)

Certainly a small bit of ceremonial boilerplate is not going to undo semesters of learning for our students, but it would be nice if GTU updated its text to reflect the modern state of the discipline.

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