GY202 Geographic Thought
Essay #1 - The Five Themes in Geography
September 6, 1995
During the 1980's the United States showed unacceptably low test scores on simple Geographic tests. The point Committee on Geographic Education could only attribute these results to Geographic Illiteracy, not only on the part of the students, but more importantly on the educators themselves. By 1984 it had become inexplicably clear that immediate action must take place to counteract this ongoing problem in our educational institutions (Journal of Geography 89). In response, the Joint Committee on Geographic Education produced a landmark publication entitled "Guidelines for Geographic Education". This document contained a scope and sequence in Geography with suggested learning results for the nations primary and secondary school systems, as well as suggested educational strategies for analysis on the part of the students and teachers. Most importantly, this article provided the Five Fundamental Themes in Geography, which have evolved to become an integral element of social studies education, because they take the world of geographic study beyond the realm of basic memorization, and into a new plane of analysis and implementation. These five themes include location, place, human-environment interactions, movement, and regions.
Location answers the question of "where?". If you plan to meet someone at a specific time, and a specific place, the question of "Where will you meet?" must first be answered. To resolve this situation, Geography employs Absolute Location, and Relative Location.
Absolute Location applies a grid-matrix system to the earth's surface in the form of coordinates. These coordinates, longitude and latitude, allow geographers to pinpoint exact areas of the earth's surface, and other planetary bodies as well. If Geographers wish to apply satellite technology to observe an area of the earth's surface, coordinates are used to pinpoint an exact location.
Relative Location answers the simple question of where you would meet a person. For example: "Let's meet at Martin Hall, the building next to the Library." But, relative location is much deeper than simple location. It also involves interdependence of a location based upon its resources, people, and environment.
If one wishes to build a ski resort, the location of that resort must be relative with the environment of the location. It would be illogical, and non-profitable to build a ski resort in the Mojave desert. However, it would be logical to build a resort in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Idaho, or Montana.
Every area on the surface of the earth is defined by some type of characteristic. Siberia is known to be very cold, but also a part of the Soviet Union, a formerly communist country. Belize is known to be very warm, but it is also an English speaking country which houses a tropical rain forest. To define these basic geographical characteristics, Geographers have placed them into three categories under the heading of "place" - Physical, Human, and Observed Characteristics.
Physical Characteristics are those characteristics which define the physical environment of a place . This environment includes the climate, physical terrain, and plant and animal life.
Human Characteristics are those things which people have done to an environment to change them. People construct buildings in which to live, shop, work, pray, and play. People are also defined by their religion, race, languages they speak, and philosophies and ideologies in which they live.
Observed Characteristics are in part an overflow of human characteristics. People change their environment, this change can be observed in everyday life; the roads we use to get to work or school, the power lines used to heat our homes, the pollution exuded from our factories to produce the luxuries we crave, all of these represent changes to our environment. These physical changes represent the observed characteristics of a place.
Human- Environment interactions are the way people react with their environment (Guidelines for Geographic Education). Living with the environment is not a one way street, we can not continually expect to take from mother earth without giving something in return. We take for granted the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we consume, and the houses in which we live. The important thing to remember is where did these amenities come from?
The human population continues to pour thousands of tons of combustion emissions into the atmosphere every day, these emissions include not only carbon dioxide, but chloroflourocarbons from refrigerants as well, which escalates the depletion of the ozone (O3) layer exponentially (film - Geography tutor). Only recently did our governments pass a law banning the use of chloroflorocarbons. Sadly, humans continue to deplete one of earth's greatest natural resources which could aid in the natural repair of the ozone layer, our rain forests. The list of violations people incur upon the environment everyday is endless, but it is the most important of the five themes in geography - Human/Environment interactions - and the reason is very simple. If our population continues to rape the environment in the fashion in which it has over the last two hundred years, very soon, there will be no environment left. Mother nature is very forgiving, but her resources are being pulled out from under her at a rate in which she can not repair herself. If she dies, we all shall surely perish as well.
Movement is simply the migration of people, products, information, and ideas within or between regions (Journal of Geography 1990). People on earth are now linked in virtually every way via transportation, communication, and technological networks which allow for the sharing of ideas, philosophies, goods, and services within virtually every corner of the globe.
The last of the five themes of geography consists of the idea of regions. A region is not only a place where a group of people of similar nationality, race, or religious belief reside. A region can also be a defining physical characteristic of a place. The Sahara and Sahel of Africa is a desert region. Defined by its consistently hot and dry climate. Great Britain of old encompassed one of the greatest regional empires of the world, which extended from Australia, to Belize, to the North American Continent, and finally to her own islands. A region simply put, is a place which has a unique physical, racial, cultural, or environmental characteristic which defines it separately form other regions.
The five fundamental themes of geography offer educators a new and unique perspective on the world of geography. This perspective breaks down the vast array of knowledge contained in the world of geography into its simplest simplest form, allowing teachers to convey the basic concepts of geography. These basic concepts are the key to understanding. Once the student learns the five basic themes, he or she can then apply the themes to virtually every aspect of our physical and cultural environment. Which in the end will provide a much deeper understanding of geography, as well as eliminating the problem of geographic illiteracy in our schools. After all, education is not memorization, education is understanding.
1. "The Four Traditions of Geography", The Journal of Geography, May 1964, pg. 211 - 213, William D. Pattison
2. "The New School Geography: A Critique", The Journal of Geography, February 1990, pg. 27 - 30, Robert Harper
3. "An Elaboration of the Fundamental Themes in Geography", Social Education, May 1994, pg. 211 - 213, Richard G. Boehm and James F. Petersen.
4. "Guidelines for Geographic Education", National Council for Geographic Education and Association of American Geographers., 1984.