The above picture is a good metaphor to describe my career as a Geographer in the United States of America. You can look at this picture two different ways. It is either a Bridge to Nowhere, or it is a project that hasn’t been completed yet. There is some truth to be found in both of those perspectives.
We’ll need to discuss a few things first….The concept of what is the meaning of the word “nowhere”, and the story behind this picture I took in Western Uzbekistan in 2014.
The concept of “Nowhere” can either be thought of as an unfamiliar area OR a location far away from “civilization” that a person attributes little value to. I’ve spent a large portion of my life seeking out remote, undiscovered places. Places deemed as “Nowhere” by most people actually attract me to explore them. On the other hand, it is my role as a geography educator to fill in the blank spaces of students’ mental maps; to turn nowhere into somewhere. Without Geography, we’d all be nowhere!
Next, let’s discuss the story behind this picture. This bridge is located in the Western part of the Republic of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. To most Americans, Uzbekistan is in the middle of Nowhere. However, to understand the meaning behind this scene, one must first study a bit of history of the unique region of Central Asia which is now called Uzbekistan.
July 18, 2014.…a stroll through Amir Timur Square in Tashkent (Uzbekistan’s capital city)
After breakfast, I took a stroll into the large park known as Amir Timur (Temur) Square. The square, in the center of the city, showed Tashkent to be a modern, thriving metropolis. In fact, Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the former Soviet Union. Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame) is Uzbekistan’s national hero. I gazed upward at his statue. The whole park gave deference to Uzbekistan’s greatness centuries ago.
What the rest of the world now considers to be “nowhere” was once the center of the Universe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Timur was born in the Spring of 1336 in a region that was then known as Trans-Oxania. He is infamous for being #1 in the history of the world for something. More people were killed under his rule than under the leadership of any other human being in the history of mankind! Ask that question of most people and their answers might include Hitler, Stalin, or Genghis Khan, but all of them fall short of the estimated 17 million killed as he expanded his empire over most of Central Asia. He described himself as “the Sword of Islam”. His armies would place themselves on the doorstep of a city and offer an ultimatum….Surrender and join us, or fight us and be destroyed. Those who resisted were annihilated. Every man, woman, dog, sheep, goat, etc. were destroyed. Like the Borg collective in Star Trek movies, resistance was futile.
Amir Timur built the grandest buildings in the world during that time, including the Registan in the capital city of Samarkand, and decried “if you doubt our power, look at our buildings”.
Let’s go back to the picture of the “Bridge to Nowhere”, which better depicts the state of affairs in modern day Uzbekistan. Tamerlane’s empire rapidly declined after his death. Lots of people had scores to settle. An increase in sail technology allowed world powers to trade by sea and bypass the important caravans of trade in Central Asia. The area became an isolated backwater. The physical geography of desert and steppe, enabled outside conquering armies access to the region from all directions. When you stroll through Tashkent, you will notice that the physical characteristics of its people give a window to the history of conquest. The armies of Alexander the Great came through here centuries ago, and you can still see evidence of that in the green eyes of some Uzbek citizens. Also apparent is the DNA left behind by Mongols, Persians, Arabs, and Jews. One hour of walking the streets of Tashkent will confirm this for you.
In recent history, the region was taken over in the early 20th century by the USSR, whose central government they became dependent upon. Stalin partitioned the borders of the newly acquired states on three criteria; majority ethnicity, natural borders such as mountains, and a sharing of resources in desert areas (the reason that the rivers which flow through the desert wander back and forth over borders). The borders that he drew up make Uzbekistan one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world….meaning that not only does Uzbekistan not have an outlet to the sea for trade, but EVERY other country which surrounds it does not have a seaport either.
This was not as much of a problem as long as this region was part of the USSR. The central government propped up the economy. But everything changed when the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s. Newly independent Uzbekistan had no money, so the bridge over the railroad tracks was never finished. Decades later, it remains a bridge “to nowhere”. Uzbekistan diminished in power on the world scene, and became “nowhere” to most of the rest of the world.
However, “Nowhere” is still a place. Where is it exactly? It is a cultural construct and exists only in our minds. Uzbekistan is not nowhere to Uzbeks; it is home. To Tajiks and Turkmen, it is the home of their rivals. In the minds of ethnocentric societies, the realm of nowhere is an ever-expanding empire. The only way to keep the kingdom of nowhere from continually expanding is by teaching Geography, and turning nowheres into somewheres. Another way of writing NOWHERE is to put one space in between the letters and spell it NOW HERE!
The bridge not only represents my career as a Geographer in America, but probably does for the majority of American Geographers. Our discipline, once considered to be the “Mother of all Sciences”, was once as great as Amir Timur’s empire. It started its decline in the 1960s, when Harvard did away with its Geography department. As America became more powerful, both economically and militarily, our citizenry turned their attention inward. A National Geographic study conducted in 2006 showed the 63% of High School students couldn’t find Iraq on a map, even though the USA had been in the war for at least five years. And it isn’t just foreign places….50% of U.S. students couldn’t find New York on a national map. The lack of emphasis in teaching about the world that we live in contributes to the geographical illiteracy of our citizenry.
This ignorance presents a danger to our democracy. Both the far right and the far left have learned how to “weaponize” ignorance, which allows for brainwashing. Geographical ignorance exacerbates the divisions within our own country and allows people to demonize other cultures. Ignorance is a catalyst for ultra-nationalism and jingoism. It is the fuel source for hate groups. We now need to be as wary of the threats within our own country as the threats that come from outside of our borders.
I am sympathetic to the plight of modern Uzbekistan. I have an unfinished bridge, but am running out of resources. The “central government” has let me know that I’m on my own. The mission statement from the college where I teach used to read, “we will be a leader in regionally and globally responsive adult, lifelong, post-secondary education for our region.” Geography is a critical component in reaching that mission. However, they removed all of that several years ago, and now they are for “student success”. My adjunct assistant was laid off soon after that move. We are graduating students and labeling them as “successful”, even though many of them may graduate knowing very little about the world outside of Oregon, and how those places have an effect, either direct or indirect, on their lives. I must say that I am grateful to all of my colleagues in other disciplines who incorporate case studies in their disciplines from other parts of the world, to help ameliorate this problem.
I’m not trying to place any blame on the administration. Their decision to cut a program, or change a mission statement, is more a function of the symptom of a much larger problem. Administrators are motivated by dollars and cents. The economics is driven by student demand. The lack of demand is due to a of lack of exposure to the subject in early years, and a lack of awareness as to the scope and breadth of the discipline. The ethnocentrism of our society is also a factor in the lack of student demand. Administrators at my own institution provided me with data and asked me to write a report to review our program. The fact that Geology data was given to me instead of Geography data told me everything I needed to know. Even a PhD might not know the difference.
Geography may not be taught best as a stand alone discipline. It is meant to be taught alongside other disciplines, woven together with Geography to help make sense of a complex and dynamically changing world. It is the “glue” which binds all other disciplines together. Tell me which field of study that happens “nowhere”.
I recently officially “retired”, whatever that means. I still have plans to complete construction of the bridge, but I won’t be able to do it as a part time instructor. The college has decided not to rehire for my position. They don’t see the value in it. But I still have a mission to accomplish. I will do that any way I can, even if it is through a blog, as a guest lecturer in the class of another discipline, or eventually by writing a book. And we will have to do it without the blessing of the “central government.” As long as there are readers such as you, who are still curious about the world we live in, then there is still hope in making progress on the bridge construction. Even if we have to do it by hand, one brick at a time……
Like the protagonist Atreyu in “The Never Ending Story”, we must fight against the Nothing. In that story, the “Nothing” threatens to destroy the world called Fantasia. It is created by humans’ lack of desire to read books. In our story, the “Nothing” represents the lack of geographical knowledge of the world that we live in and the lack of desire to even care about knowing it.
It is up to each of us to learn as much as we can about other cultures in other parts of the world. We share the same atmosphere that moves around us. We share the resources that this planet provides for us. Our survival as a species depends on us all not letting somewheres turn into nowheres. Let us not be dismayed by the enormity of the task. If we all pitch in and keep our focus forward, we have hope of a better world. Not a guarantee, but a hope…
What else could we ask for? Let’s get to work…together!