History of Geography at Millersville University

Justin Roddy, M.S., Ph.D. published two texts, Elementary Geography and Complete Geography, both published by the American Book Company of New York in 1902, in which he listed himself as a member of the Department of Geography, First Pennsylvania Normal School. Thus, the department’s roots go back over 110 years. The Department of Geography has been officially identified as a separate academic department since 1956, when Millersville was known as Millersville State Teachers College.

Interpreted historically, the Geography Department was for most of its existence committed principally to teacher education. Until the mid-1960s, it served two functions: the presentation of a year-long course sequence in World Regional Geography required of every student, and the administration of a program for teacher certification in geography in secondary education. Geography and history were the two fields of certification for the social sciences. All faculty recruited for the department were themselves graduates of teacher-training colleges.

The SPUTNIK phenomenon introduced a new urgency in teacher preparation in the sciences and mathematics, and the department responded with a stronger accent on physical geography and by re-designing the program as a combination of geography and earth science. The department received approximately ten NSF grants to train public and private school teachers in physical geography. This lasted only until the college restructured its program in the late 1960s into academic divisions (education, humanities, social sciences, and sciences-mathematics). Geography became a constituent of the new division of social sciences, and Earth Science joined the new division of sciences and mathematics. Meanwhile, another sense of urgency developed, this time related to the human world, and a comprehensive program emerged, under Pennsylvania Department of Education sponsorship, identified as World Cultures. Millersville State College’s contribution to this statewide program was to address its world cultures curriculum to emphasize Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. At the time Millersville was still approximately 85% education students, and the Department of Geography had 75 to 90 majors and a faculty of eight.

By the early 1970s, the Geography Department faced multiple changes in responsibilities and potential. The former teacher education program in social studies, leading to certification either in geography or history, became a “Comprehensive Social Studies” certification program also involving newly-established departments of economics, political science, and sociology. The World Cultures and Comprehensive Social Studies certification programs both implied careful and extensive interdepartmental and interdisciplinary efforts, so geography could no longer be perceived as self-sustaining; it now became a component of the divisional effort. At the same time, the authorization of liberal arts degrees in all academic fields provided the stimulus to design a liberal arts geography major quite different from the one for teacher certification. The new college curriculum designs removed the requirement that all students in the liberal arts take some geography, replacing the prescribed curriculum with area requirements. The new curriculum also led to altered requirements for students in teacher education.

When the Pennsylvania Department of Education created its program of certification requirements for secondary teachers, it largely eliminated geography from the public school system. This political decision cost the M.U. Geography Department a majority of its majors who were enrolled in the B.S. in Secondary Education program. The Geography Department tried many strategies to build the liberal arts major in geography, including active participation in the creation and running of the Urban Studies and International Studies programs.

In the early 1980s, new ideas were evolving in the graduate geography programs around the country, to develop in the discipline a more applied approach in the use of technical and quantitative methods, a more analytical approach to environmental issues, and greater awareness of the global dimensions of many issues. Computers and computer graphics software were entering the field to increase its analytical capabilities and were resulting in many new computer-based methods, especially Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The concepts associated with these new aspects of geography were readily introduced in Millersville geography courses, and since the late 1980s improved access to the technology enabled its increasing integration into courses. In the early 1990’s, the department established its three concentrations reflecting the disciplines and our faculty’s particular skills and interests: Global Geography, Environmental Geography and (then) Applied Geography. Many of our graduates still hold prominent positions in local planning agencies and related fields and in federal and international organizations. Our reputation is earned, in part at least, by the good work that they do.

At the same time, the number and proportion of our majors heading toward careers in education have decreased significantly. The loss of geographic skills has been noticed in our schools and colleges, and changes in curricula are occurring in many states, though the changes have not fully caught on in Pennsylvania. All the social sciences (except history) are hindered by the state-supported curriculum changes, which emphasized the teaching of Social Studies in the schools rather than separate discipline-related subjects. Even though our secondary education majors are not as technology- and skills-oriented as the liberal arts majors in our department, they still are a vital part of our program and society. We are firmly convinced that teachers with suitable background in geography courses are desperately needed to dispel the geographic ignorance of American middle- and high-school students.

      (Adapted from the Geography Department Academic Program Review, 1992)