On the Study of Geography

THERE is a remarkable diversity of opinion as to the value of geographical studies as a part of the curriculum in school and college. Look at the time devoted to geography in the public schools, and this would seem to be one of the most important topics. Talk with the teachers, the scholars, and the parents, and loud outcries may be heard against its domination. Confer with the members of a college faculty. Now and then, from authorities like Arnold Guyot or George P. Marsh (not to name any one living), the most glowing commendation of such studies will be heard, but oftener, expressions like those of the late Coutts Trotter, of Trinity College, Cambridge, who frankly admitted, in a letter intended for publication, that he had not “ any very clear ideas of what the study of geography as a separate subject would mean, or what would be the nature of the lectures of a professor or reader in geography.” Yet Mr. Trotter was a scholar, a traveler, a man of varied interests, and well acquainted with the problems of modern higher education. This divergence of opinion is more apparent when the ways of German universities are compared with those of English and American institutions. In Germany, there are more than a dozen chairs of geography, filled by men of high distinction,1 and a trustworthy authority, Mr. Scott Keltie, states that their courses are attended by from twenty to eighty hearers. In England, the neglect of geography in education has led the Royal Geographical Society to concerted efforts for reform. The recent Proceedings of that body, and especially the first volume of supplementary papers, contain many significant articles upon this theme. Among them, attention may be directed specially to the opinions that have been collected from enlightened men in different countries by the editor, Mr. Keltie.

In the United States, we cannot be reproached with the neglect of geography. The public chest, from the days of Lewis and Clark, and the private purse, from the days of Peabody and Grinnell, have been opened for the aid of continental, oceanic, arctic, and African researches. In the primary and grammar schools, much time (we have already said) is bestowed upon the study, but books and methods are often dry, and not infrequently sterile.

As these facts are borne in mind, it is a hopeful sign that the Brooklyn Institute has recently made a public exhibition of the best maps, charts, models, reliefs, diagrams, atlases, and books that the world has produced, and having shown them, free of charge, to throngs of Brooklynites, is now ready to transfer the collection to other cities. Nothing but good can come from such a display. It was undoubtedly superior to any of the kind that has been seen in the United States. It comprised the varied sorts of educational apparatus published in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, as well as in England and the United States. The general effect was impaired by want of sufficient wall-room, and by the unsympathetic surroundings of the Arcade in which the collection was arranged. If these objects are to be transferred to other cities, larger halls with plenty of wall-room should be secured, and much more should be done than was attempted in Brooklyn to guide the visitor by labels, descriptive cards, leaflets, and familiar lectures. Nevertheless, the collection exhibited by the Brooklyn Institute is most praiseworthy. It should not be too soon dispersed. Its display in other cities would certainly acquaint many teachers and managers of schools with the general inferiority of the maps now employed in this country for school and college instruction. Better apparatus would soon be called for. It is the want of acquaintance with the progress of geographical science which makes our educational authorities indifferent to the methods that are employed on the continent, and to the aids that are provided in Germany and France.

Everybody knows that we live in space of three dimensions, not two ; on a sphere, not on a plane ; yet maps are often constructed as if they represented “ flat land,” or the world of two dimensions. Mountains are omitted altogether, — as in a popular historical atlas that lies before me, and in most of our railroad guidebooks, — or else they are indicated by symbols which suggest narrow ridges crossing the country as a zigzag rail fence runs across the meadows. The indication of broad regions of upheaved land, like those of Spain or Anatolia, or the vast plateaux of Asia and North America, is generally wanting. Countries which are diversified by low and lofty plains, by ridges, peaks, and passes, by broad and narrow valleys, are represented as if they were as level as the sea beach or the prairie. Hence the circuitous routes of traffic and travel, the tortuous movements of armies, the sites of memorable battles, the sinuous windings of political boundaries, are not understood.

Yet admirable maps, for the wall and for the table, exhibiting the reliefs as well as the horizontal outlines, have been prepared for every part of Europe, for the United States, for all the continents, and for many of the islands of the sea. Regions of noteworthy geographical or historical significance are also illustrated by special orographic maps. It is a wonder that they are not more commonly used. Compare, for example, Levasseur’s map of the region that is bounded on the south by the sea and the Pyrenees, on the east by the Alps and the Rhine, with a common map of France. The one is full of suggestions to the traveler or the student; the other is flat. The one is alive ; the other is dead. On the one the routes that Hannibal, Cæsar, Louis XIV., Napoleon, must have followed are apparent. The meaning of transalpine and cisalpine Gaul requires no glossary. Ultramontanism is not an obscure term. “There are no more Pyrenees ” is a rhetorical phrase, not a geographical fact. The prolonged disputes with reference to the Rhenish frontier appear foreordained. Metz, Strasburg, Belfort, are not merely artificial fortresses ; they are natural strategic points. Great Britain faces little Britain. The conditions which have made Paris the central city of a great state are easily comprehended. The less one knows of French geography, the more he is incited to study it by this map; the more he knows, the more he will enjoy the study. Or, instead of Levasseur’s France, examine Kiepert’s Hellas. The limitations of Greek states, their rivalries, alliances, points of contention, places of assembly, shrines, are seen to be based upon the orography of the land. Indeed, without such a map of Greece the classical and the modern historians are alike difficult and obscure. Pen descriptions like those of Curtius, Grote, Kiepert, Jebb, are indeed most graphic, but even their skillful phrases are illuminated by good maps that exhibit the upliftings of the land surfaces as well as their horizontal dimensions.

One word of caution should perhaps be added. In selecting a physical map, avoid, as a general rule, those that are overlaid with typography. Out of deference to the prejudices, or perhaps to the ignorance, of purchasers, the cartographer often endeavors to make the same map serve for natural, historical, and actual political conditions, and consequently he obscures the sheet by a profusion of names. There are, of course, reasons why certain maps must be covered with words, — that is what a postal map is for, and a map of the bishoprics of Christendom or of the minor sovereignties of Germany will be meaningless unless well lettered; but even maps for such purposes as these will be more useful and intelligible if paired with maps that indicate the orographic features, free from disturbing elements. Under no circumstances is it wise to obscure topography by typography.

An admirable piece of geographical apparatus has lately been prepared for Baltimore by Mr. C. Mindeleff, of the United States Geological Survey. He has translated (if that expression may be allowed) into a topographical model the topographical map of the city and its environs lately made by the government. The elevations are represented without exaggeration, —just as they are in nature. Here may be seen in true relations the hills, rising to five hundred feet of altitude; the cañon-like ravines of Jones’ Falls and Gwynn’s Falls; the broad plateau over which runs the Pikesville turnpike; the rolling country on the summits of which the Cathedral, the Washington Monument, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Bay View Asylum, and other edifices are placed; as well as all the watercourses and shore lines. Everything on the map is as trustworthy as it is clear. For instruction in geographical forms, nothing better could be wished for. If reliefs like this, representing districts of special significance and importance, were common in our schools and colleges, the value of geographical study would quickly be recognized. A few hundred dollars would insure the preparation of a like model for Boston, New York, and other large cities. The original, once made, might be copied at moderate cost. When the full meaning of such maps is perceived, they will be found valuable as accessories for the prosecution of many branches of science.

Not only the student of history, but the student of political economy, will demand them, as they are now called for by geologists and naturalists. Statesmen and legislators will make fewer blunders to be corrected by after generations, if they will only become familiar with the enduring physical characteristics of every region which they are called upon to govern, or over which they exert an influence. Goldwin Smith wisely opens his new book by saying that whoever wishes to know what Canada is, and to understand the Canadian question, should begin by turning from the political to the natural map. " The political map displays a vast and unbroken area of territory, extending from the boundary of the United States up to the north pole, and equaling or surpassing the United States in magnitude. The physical map displays four separate projections of the cultivable and habitable part of the continent into arctic waste.” What he says so concisely of Canadian maps may be universally extended. To understand any country, " turn from the political to the natural map.” We may even go further, and demand a map which shall show a geographical unit in its relations to other geographical units. For example, the valley of the Mississippi, from the Appalachians on the east to the Cordilleras on the west, is a geographical unit; and to comprehend it, the relations of this vast territory to the lake system and the Canadian territory on the north, and to the mountain barriers, eastern and western, must be examined. For another example consider the peninsula of Arabia, a geographical unit. Its relations to the two great river valleys, the Nile and the Euphrates, and to the three great seas, the Persian, the Red, and the Mediterranean, must be clearly appreciated. In this vast domain and its adjunct territory five ancient empires were established ; here the great soldiers of antiquity led their armies; three religions of world-wide significance were cradled on this peninsula. But how rarely a good map of the natural features of Arabia is seen upon the wall of a class-room or lecture-room ! Let me give a third example. Not long ago, in a course of lectures prepared for an audience of one hundred and fifty persons, there was need of a wall-map to illustrate the natural characteristics of the Mediterranean lands. With all the favor bestowed on classical studies, anybody would suppose that such a map could easily be found. Not so. I wrote to Washington, New York, Princeton; I searched the resources of Baltimore. I could find separate maps of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the continents being as carefully isolated as if there were a cartographical quarantine. Kiepert’s map of the ancient world was accessible. The six sheets of a German hand-map could be pasted together. A map of southeastern Europe in its physical aspects, prepared for Professor Freeman when he lectured in Baltimore, included half the sea; but a suitable wall-map of the entire Mediterranean for a college lecture-room must be made to order. Mr. Sandoz, the expert draughtsman, whose handiwork is familiar to the owners of the Guyot maps, prepared it; and Mr. Mindeleff, who made the beautiful reliefs that serve as the basis of the continental maps in Butler’s geographies, prepared a smaller map, which was photographed and supplied to the class; so that at last they were well provided with the graphic representation of the sea and its border lands.

The instructiveness of such a map is obvious. The barriers which have interrupted human intercourse; the islands and headlands that have served as stepping-stones for successive emigrations; the portals that are opened by rivers into the interior of continents ; the strategic points which defend vast areas; the natural boundaries, not only of great states, but of minor provinces, are seen at a glance distinctly. I his portion of the world thus appears to have been arranged for the life of mankind, as a house is built for the family that is to occupy it, as a body is grown for the mind that controls it. How persistent the influence of those four great breaks in the coast line : the Straits of Gibraltar, a portal to the ocean, and so to America; the Bosphorus, a portal to the Black Sea, and so to the heart of Asia; the Nile, a portal to the heart of Africa; and the Rhone, a portal to the heart of Europe. Alexandria, Constantinople, Marseilles, Gibraltar, are the doorkeepers, and the fate of the world is controlled by the states that direct these warders. The early commercial prosperity of Phœnicia was obviously governed by its physical limitations, its physical opportunities. A strip of seaboard, fertile but narrow, with harbors of moderate excellence, lying between the rich valley of Mesopotamia on the one side and the Nile on the other, developed a certain degree of prosperity, and suggested plus ultra. Cyprus invited ventures. The headland just west of that which we know as Cape Bon became the seat of Carthage. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules other allurements invited the Tyrian mariner, — the mines of tin in fact, the Isles of the Blest in fancy. So from Asia to Africa, and from Africa to Europe, the course of commercial empire proceeded. On the other hand, “ to the eye of modern poetry, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean have changed places. ... It is to the basin of the Mediterranean, fringed with storied cities and venerable ruins, with the crumbling sanctuaries of a creed which has passed away and the monuments of an art which is imperishable, that man turns to-day.” So writes Mr. H. D. Traill in his introduction to The Picturesque Mediterranean. The wings of trade likewise turn from the ocean to the Levant, and from the Levant to the more distant Orient. “ The eternal Eastern question " is still unsettled, and the opposing civilizations of Europe and Asia confront one another on the borders of this sea.

My advice to the teacher of geography would be given in a few general propositions.

Abandon the idea that teaching lists of names is teaching a knowledge of the surface of the globe. You might as well suppose that you are acquainting a countryman with city life because you teach him the name of every store from Central Park to the Battery. Such knowledge is of little use to any one but the postman, and he does not require a school-master to give him lessons. Mere nomenclature is as sterile in geography as it is in botany, zoölogy, anatomy, or any other natural science. This everlasting repetition of names of places makes geography unpopular. Of course a certain amount of place-naming must be taught, but let the teacher give the right emphasis to his lists. Let regions or places of importance be kept prominent, and the reasons why they are important; then let the pupil be wonted to the use of a gazetteer, if he would know the secondary facts. Avoid the heresy that appears at the beginning of a recent elaborate Physical, Historical, Political, and Descriptive Geography (published in England), which declares that “the first and most important question that the geographer has to answer is Where.”What and Why are, to say the least, quite as important as Where. Where, What, and Why are three questions that should always go together.

My next advice to the teacher is to make free use of maps which correctly represent the great upheavals of land. Give the mountains their due. Emphasize orography. Reliefs are good, but when the altitudes are not “forced” or exaggerated they seldom convey the right impression; when they are out of scale they are also likely to mislead. For this reason, flat maps, colored so as to indicate height contours at moderate intervals, are on the whole more satisfactory.

Mr. Grote concludes the preface to his history of Greece by referring to the habit of the Spartan king to perform his morning sacrifices immediately before sunrise, in order that he might be beforehand in obtaining the favor of the gods; and by adding that this habit cannot be adequately appreciated if the reader be not familiar with the Homeric conception of Zeus going to rest at night, and awaking to rise, at early dawn, from the side of the white-armed Hêrê. So we may say that the course of empire, the march of civilization, the lessons of history, cannot be understood unless the reader is familiar with the enduring features of the earth moulded by primeval forces upon the plastic surface.

Geography, history, politics,—this is the natural sequence of study; and this is a prosy way of stating what has thus been expressed in a suggestive couplet:

“Space, Time, Spirit, — these three are revealed to the mind of the Finite.
Each in its order appears flooding the soul with its light.”

Carl Ritter, in the essay introductory to the Erdkunde, made this remarkable utterance seventy years ago : —

“ It is not impossible that the time may come when certain minds, who have compassed the world of nature as well as of morals, shall be able, sending their glance backwards and forwards, to determine from the whole course of a nation’s surroundings what the course of its development is to be, and to indicate in advance of history what ways it must take to attain the welfare which Providence has indicated to it.”

Daniel Coit Gilman.

  1. Since the days of Kant, author of one of the earliest physical geographies, a succession of distinguished Germans have been devoted to geography. Humboldt, Berghaus, Ritter, Steffens, Kiepert, Petermann, Peschel, Richthofen, and many younger men deserve remembrance.