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How can we fix the world if we can't read a map?

Without a good grasp of geography, terrorism may be tougher to fight

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Compromise is what maps and mapmakers are all about. When I teach geography, this is the first principle I teach.

To demonstrate this, I use "the grapefruit lesson." Take a grapefruit. Think of it as the Earth. Identify the North and South poles. Then, with a marker, draw a line around the Earth between the poles (the Equator).

Draw a few lines of longitude. Then draw a few shapes on the surface to suggest the continents. Finally, using a knife, remove the skin of the grapefruit so that it can be both a flat and readable map of the world.

When students do this, of course, they discover that the final step is impossible. It can only by done by tearing the skin to shreds, or subdividing it into impossibly small segments. This leads to conversations about map projections and their inherent compromises of shape or size. Understanding this is the first step toward understanding what geography is really about.

Noted geographer Harm de Blij does something similar - and a good deal more - in his remarkable new book "Why Geography Matters."

This is not an academic tome or a technical book about geography. It is a friendly and accessible reader for those who have a basic grasp of some of the concepts of geography and who want to understand where the world is headed.

It is also an urgent call to educators across the United States to restore the study of geography to the nation's schools. Climate change, terrorism, and massive population shifts cannot be fully grasped without a grounding in geography that US students are not currently getting, he contends.

"Geographic knowledge by itself cannot solve these problems," writes de Blij, who is a geography professor and editor at the National Geographic Society. "But they will not be effectively approached without it. "


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