The Gutting of a Georgetown Tradition: Meddling with “Map of the Modern World”

I had another post in mind today at the Neighborhood, but this news was sent to me by my fellow alumni and its getting my blood up.

In an earlier post on geography, I mentioned a course I took at Georgetown called “Map of the Modern World”, a 1-credit boot camp of world geography and geopolitics.   As a student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) I had to take this course as a graduation requirement–since the qualification exam rendered me, in Professor Pirtle’s thundrous voice, “geographically ignorant.”  Even though it was a killer for a one-credit course, it was one of the most rewarding courses I took.  I know of no other university that has a geography course that even comes close.

Yet, just as it does in the world of education, the “boutique” theories seem to be adopted by administrators as if they were flavors of the month.  Such is the case at SFS, where the new dean, James Reardon-Anderson, wants to take over the course personally.  Instead of the classic geopolitical survey that each student in the SFS has received (gratefully) for decades, Reardon-Anderson plans to restructure the course as a study of geographic forces and human interactions.  The grit-and-grind of the Mercator map is replaced by the soft Venn diagrams of interactions, encounters and relationships.

The scholarship behind this change shouldn’t be new to many people–the work of Jared Diamond, professor at UCLA and author of the popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Diamond’s work postulates that the driving forces behind human interaction, as well as human inequality, are the geographic forces that have shaped the development of Earth’s multitude of societies.

Diamond’s work is not at issue.  What is at issue is using his theories in a course that was never designed as an anthropological or sociological survey.  To really see the difference, here’s the old course description:

Map of the Modern World – 1 Credit

This one-credit-hour course is designed to provide you with regional overviews of the evolution of the world political map since 1800. The objective of this course is to enhance your basic working knowledge of the political map of the modern world as a first step in understanding world events and international relations. The method of instruction
will be lectures supported by a heavy dose of maps and short outside readings. The lectures will focus on the evolution of the modern political map of each region and on major nationalist, ethnic, boundary, and territorial conflicts and tension areas.

Here is the new course description:

Map of the Modern World – 1 Credit

This one-credit course is designed to provide basic knowledge of the physical and political geography of the world. Weekly lectures cover the fundamental forces that shape the physical geography and the effects of physical geography on human behavior in ten regions of the world. The final exam covers information presented in the lectures, the location and capitals of contemporary states, and the identification of major geographical features. The final examination is multiple choice and graded pass-fail. The course is required for graduation from the School of Foreign Service.

As a point of clarification, ths course was always a requirement to graduate and was always graded pass-fail.  Yet the differences are obvious.  Map of the Modern World was a course designed for future diplomats and international leaders in order to establish a baseline knowledge of the world and its machinations.  Period.  Since the SFS was designed as a school for training future diplomats, this makes perfect sense.

Reardon-Anderson’s version is cute.  It’s too cute.  In fact, it’s more like an elective course than a requirement for a school of international relations.  Because of the new dean’s penchant for the theory du jour, students at Georgetown will be less than adequately prepared for the roles they aspire to after graduation.  No 1-credit course can do justice to Diamond’s theories while preserving the original goal of establishing background knowledge of the political world to students of international affairs. 

It’s embarrassing that such a change is even considered, let alone approved.  Climate change, human interactions, geographic forces–these are all worthy of study.  But not in Map.

This leads to my last point.   Map of the Modern World was a rite of passage for students in the SFS program at Georgetown, the oldest school for international studies dating back to 1919.  Every year, each spring, freshman entered the large lecture hall in the Reiss Science Building for 45 minutes of backbreaking maps, charts, definitions, treaties, Latin terms such as “uti possidetes” (one of my old classmates please correct my spelling), and the logjam of minutia that make the modern international system. 

Damnit, that boot camp did a body good, and no boutique theories or Johnny-come-lately techniques should mess up a good thing.

I’m calling on all my former SFS alumni, alumni from other Georgetown schools, even non-alumni that visit the Neighborhood to take action and stop Reardon-Anderson’s quest to sink the SFS into “geographic ignorance.”

A Facebook group has been made for those who want to join, linked here.  Those wishing to express their opinions directly to the school can e-mail Dean Reardon-Anderson at  Be sure to CC Dean Lancaster at

Lets save at least one piece of our education that actually worked.  Show the administration at SFS that some cows are too damned sacred to make into hamburger.


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2 responses to “The Gutting of a Georgetown Tradition: Meddling with “Map of the Modern World”

  1. Karl

    Great point! We should get a petition together. In one of the quirks of the course, you needed an 80 (out of 100) to initially pass out of the course, but later on, just a 70 to pass the course at its completion. I scored a 78 or 79 on the initial exam. I was so annoyed at the time, but that one or two point deficiency turned out to be a blessing in disguise. You learned so much more than just the names of places. It certainly was one of the most worthwhile courses.

    I think I’ll forward your posting on to the new Dean, and I think any other concerned SFS alumni should do the same.

    — Karl (SFS ’99)

  2. Good post. The class was a bit of a pain but in the end, worth it. Too many people do not have what this course offered, and those who already have “it”, far too often neglect how important “it” is.

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