Faculty member publishes new textbook, emphasizes importance of geographic knowledge over geographic labels
“Thinking critically about geopolitics is more important than ever,” says Gerard Toal, of Washington, D.C., professor of government and international affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Affairs at Virginia Tech, National Capital Region, in the recently published new edition of the popular textbook, The Geopolitics Reader.
Toal is senior editor and contributor to the textbook, originally published by Routledge in 1998.
“The first edition was largely concerned with the first Gulf War and the emergence of the environment as a central topic in international affairs,” says Toal. Aimed at upper level undergraduates and graduate students studying international affairs, it was popular in the classroom because it provided a collection of original readings on the history of geopolitics and its contemporary debates. The significance of these original texts is explained by Toal and his co-authors in substantial introductions in the new edition. Toal wrote three of the five, as well as the overall volume introduction, “Thinking Critically About Geopolitics.”
“Geopolitics is an essentially contested practice, with a controversial past. We wanted students to grapple with this difficult subject by having them read excerpts from famous and infamous texts,” says Toal. “For example, both editions of The Geopolitics Reader include an excerpt from Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The new edition includes a statement attributed to Osama Bin Laden. Students need to read these hate documents for themselves so they can better understand how racists and terrorists think.”
Toal says his goal is to get students to think critically about how world politics is presented by politicians, intellectuals and others. “Geopolitics is often a very crude game of earth labeling,” he explains. “Its practitioners divide the world into huge blocs and stick a simplistic label on them.” As examples, Toal cites Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis which he says is anti-geographical because the diversity of places and peoples are completely ignored, and the often used term, “Muslim world,” which combines parts of the Middle East with Africa and Asia as if they were the same.
“Genuine geographical knowledge is the best antidote to geopolitical discourse and that is what we need more of from our leaders,” says Toal.
Toal received his bachelor’s degree from the National University of Ireland, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth; his master’s degree from The University of Illinois at Urbana –Champaign; and his doctorate from Syracuse University.
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