Chapter XVI: The Significance of Geography and History - 2. The Complementary Nature of History and Geography

History and geography—including in the latter, for reasons about to be mentioned, nature study—are the information studies par excellence of the schools. Examination of the materials and the method of their use will make clear that the difference between penetration of this information into living experience and its mere piling up in isolated heaps depends upon whether these studies are faithful to the interdependence of man and nature which affords these studies their justification. Nowhere, however, is there greater danger that subject matter will be accepted as appropriate educational material simply because it has become customary to teach and learn it. The idea of a philosophic reason for it, because of the function of the material in a worthy transformation of experience, is looked upon as a vain fancy, or as supplying a high-sounding phraseology in support of what is ahready done. The words "history" and "geography" suggest simply the matter which has been traditionally sanctioned in the schools. The mass and variety of this matter discourage an attempt to see what it really stands for, and how it can be so taught as to fulfill its mission in the experience of pupils. But unless the idea that there is a unifying and social direction in education is a farcical pretense, subjects that bulk as large in the curriculum as history and geography, must represent a general function in the development of a truly socialized and intellectualized experience. The discovery of this function must be employed as a criterion for trying and sifting the facts taught and the methods used.

The function of historical and geographical subject matter has been stated; it is to enrich and liberate the more direct and personal contacts of life by furnishing their context, their background and outlook. While geography emphasizes the physical side and history the social, these are only emphases in a common topic, namely, the associated life of men. For this associated life, with its experiments, its ways and means, its achievements and failures, does not go on in the sky nor yet in a vacuum. It takes place on the earth. This setting of nature does not bear to social activities the relation that the scenery of a theatrical performance bears to a dramatic representation; it enters into the very make-up of the social happenings that form history. Nature is the medium of social occurrences. It furnishes original stimuli; it supplies obstacles and resources. Civilization is the progressive mastery of its varied energies. When this interdependence of the study of history, representing the human emphasis, with the study of geography, representing the natural, is ignored, history sinks to a listing of dates with an appended inventory of events, labeled "important"; or else it becomes a literary phantasy—for in purely literary history the natural environment is but stage scenery.

Geography, of course, has its educative influence in a counterpart connection of natural facts with social events and their consequences. The classic definition of geography as an account of the earth as the home of man expresses the educational reality. But it is easier to give this definition than it is to present specific geographical subject matter in its vital human bearings. The residence, pursuits, successes, and failures of men are the things that give the geographic data their reason for inclusion in the material of instruction. But to hold the two together requires an informed and cultivated imagination. When the ties are broken, geography presents itself as that hodge-podge of unrelated fragments too often found. It appears as a veritable rag-bag of intellectual odds and ends: the height of a mountain here, the course of a river there, the quantity of shingles produced in this town, the tonnage of the shipping in that, the boundary of a county, the capital of a state.

The earth as the home of man is humanizing and unified; the earth viewed as a miscellany of facts is scattering and imaginatively inert. Geography is a topic that originally appeals to imagination—even to the romantic imagination. It shares in the wonder and glory that attach to adventure, travel, and exploration. The variety of peoples and environments, their contrast with familiar scenes, furnishes infinite stimulation. The mind is moved from the monotony of the customary. And while local or home geography is the natural starting point in the reconstructive development of the natural environment, it is an intellectual starting-point for moving out into the unknown, not an end in itself. When not treated as a basis for getting at the large world beyond, the study of the home geography becomes as deadly as do object lessons which simply summarize the properties of familiar objects. The reason is the same. The imagination is not fed, but is held down to recapitulating, cataloguing, and refining what is already known. But when the familiar fences that mark the limits of the village proprietors are signs that introduce an understanding of the boundaries of great nations, even fences are lighted with meaning. Sunlight, air, running water, inequality of earth's surface, varied industries, civil officers and their duties—all these things are found in the local environment. Treated as if their meaning began and ended in those confines, they are curious facts to be laboriously learned. As instruments for extending the limits of experience, bringing within its scope peoples and things otherwise strange and unknown, they are transfigured by the use to which they are put. Sunlight, wind, stream, commerce, political relations come from afar and lead the thoughts afar. To follow their course is to enlarge the mind not by stuffing it with additional information, but by remaking the meaning of what was previously a matter of course.

The same principle coördinates branches, or phases, of geographical study which tend to become specialized and separate. Mathematical or astronomical, physiographic, topographic, political, commercial, geography, all make their claims. How are they to be adjusted? By an external compromise that crowds in so much of each? No other method is to be found unless it be constantly borne in mind that the educational center of gravity is in the cultural or humane aspects of the subject. From this center, any material becomes relevant in so far as it is needed to help appreciate the significance of human activities and relations. The differences of civilization in cold and tropical regions, the special inventions, industrial and political, of peoples in the temperate regions, cannot be understood without appeal to the earth as a member of the solar system. Economic activities deeply influence social intercourse and political organization on one side, and reflect physical conditions on the other. The specializations of these topics are for the specialists; their interaction concerns man as a being whose experience is social.

To include nature study within geography doubtless seems forced; verbally, it is. But in educational idea there is but one reality, and it is pity that in practice we have two names: for the diversity of names tends to conceal the identity of meaning. Nature and the earth should be equivalent terms, and so should earth study and nature study. Everybody knows that nature study has suffered in schools from scrappiness of subject matter, due to dealing with a large number of isolated points. The parts of a flower have been studied, for example, apart from the flower as an organ; the flower apart from the plant; the plant apart from the soil, air, and light in which and through which it lives. The result is an inevitable deadness of topics to which attention is invited, but which are so isolated that they do not feed imagination. The lack of interest is so great that it was seriously proposed to revive animism, to clothe natural facts and events with myths in order that they might attract and hold the mind. In numberless cases, more or less silly personifications were resorted to. The method was silly, but it expressed a real need for a human atmosphere. The facts had been torn to pieces by being taken out of their context. They no longer belonged to the earth; they had no abiding place anywhere. To compensate, recourse was had to artificial and sentimental associations. The real remedy is to make nature study a study of nature, not of fragments made meaningless through complete removal from the situations in which they are produced and in which they operate. When nature is treated as a whole, like the earth in its relations, its phenomena fall into their natural relations of sympathy and association with human life, and artificial substitutes are not needed.