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National Geographic Announces Birthday Gift to Nation

January 13, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The National Geographic Society celebrated its 100th birthday today by announcing its centennial gift to the nation: $20 million to help teach kids about the planet Earth.

″Our kids don’t know where they are. And if you don’t know where you are, you’re nowhere,″ said Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the society’s president.

The money will go into a new foundation, and the society promised to kick in $20 million more if it can raise an equal amount in outside contributions for its cause of combating geographic illiteracy.

Grosvenor, interviewed on the NBC-TV ″Today″ show, said the foundation will direct most of its resources toward training teachers. ″We believe that the future of geography in the schools is through the teachers. We want to train these teachers to teach geography,″ he said.

″This foundation will form a basis for all of America to participate. We’ve not only put $20 million into this foundation, but we’ve also challenged the private sector and foundations to contribute another $20 million, which we will match.″

The president of the 10.5 million-member society said in remarks prepared for a news conference later in the day that ″there is no more fitting way to begin our second century than by providing a permanent base of support for our geography activities.

″The society’s concern about the untenable consequences of geographic illiteracy compel us to take an even larger role in education, and we are in it for the long haul,″ said Grosvenor, the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor and the society’s second president.

The society is best known for its yellow-bordered monthly magazine, National Geographic, with richly illustrated articles about explorations, adventures and exotic ports of call, as well as its widely watched television specials about nature and the environment.

Its dues-paying membership has boomed in recent decades, even while the study of geography has gone into eclipse in America’s schools. According to one recent survey, 25 percent of high school students surveyed in Dallas could not name Mexico as the southern neighbor of the United States. Nearly half the college students in a California poll could not locate Japan.

The non-profit society, which has revenues of $350 million a year from its magazines, television specials and sales of its maps, books and other materials, launched a $4 million-a-year geography education program in 1985 to try to improve geography teaching in public schools.

Creation of the National Geographic Society Education Foundation will give that effort a permanent base. The foundation will finance summer institutes for geography instructors and will continue to fund the Geography Alliance Network, consisting of 22 alliances in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Lloyd H. Elliott, retiring president of George Washington University, will serve as the foundation’s president. He said its aim is to ″focus public attention on the critical lack of geographic literacy in this country, bring together the resources needed to remedy the situation and target those funds where they can make a real difference - in the hands of classroom teachers and students.″

The campaign to raise $20 million in outside contributions will be the first fund-raising drive in the society’s history. It already has received about $500,000 in gifts, including a bequest from the estate of Dorothy Chancellor, a Pasadena, Calif., educator.

The drive also will be aided by the sale of a calendar commemorating the society’s centennial. It will be marketed by Harry N. Abrams Inc., which is also publishing C.D.B. Bryan’s new book, ″The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery.″

Thirty-three geographers, scientists and other prominent citizens met in the Cosmos Club across Lafayette Park from the White House on Jan. 13, 1888, to map plans for ″organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.″ Among them was Major John Wesley Powell, the one- armed explorer of the Grand Canyon.

They incorporated the society a few weeks later, and the first magazine appeared in October 1888, with a long article on the great blizzard of March 1888.

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