Dear Colleague Letters Archive

November 16, 2004

Dear Colleague,

The ladder of ascent in the curriculum of the medieval university went from natural philosophy to law and institutions, and then to theology: in other words, from the easiest subjects to the most difficult. Ours is also a ladder of ascent in degree of difficulty, but it is the reverse of the medieval one. Take geography. Physical geography, which is a science, is considered difficult; human geography, which strives to be a science, is considered less difficult; humanistic geography, full of poetry and good feeling, is widely viewed as the softie of the three, taken up by the intellectually lazy or unprepared.

Now, I say the medieval ranking is correct and ours wrong--dead wrong. How can we believe something that is so contrary to common sense? Isn't it obvious that the things physical geographers study--climate and land forms--are simpler than the things human geographers study--society and institutions? And aren't society and institutions, circumscribed by architecture and fairly standard rules of behavior, simpler than human individuals, who, by any account, is an extraordinary blend of nature, culture, and (just possibly) spirit?

Take one important branch of human geography--the study of people/nature relationships. Geographers born after 1970 take nature to be the living layer of the earth, plus climate and soils. They study the impact of the one on the other, how humans have ruined soils and threaten to exterminate the bald eagle, how climatic change due to the emission of too much carbon dioxide can affect land use in large parts of the world, and so on. Though often complex, these relationships do not defy human understanding; solutions are possible and can be judiciously applied. Human geography is, in this sense, an optimistic science, and may attract students for that reason. By contrast, humanistic geography's conception of nature is far more inclusive: nature is certainly plants and animals, climate and soils, but it is also the cancerous cell and the nebula. How do we humans relate to the latter? What is the meaning of human life in the midst of a nature that is so bizarre, so vast, and so indifferent to our existence? No element in living nature is closer to us psychologically and emotionally than the dog thumping its tail by the fireside. Yet, much as we would like to believe otherwise, it is drawn to us more as a bundle of desirable odors than as a kindly human being in a woollen sweater.

Human geography studies human relationships. Under the influence of Marxism, it often shows them to be one of exploitation, using physical force when necessary and the subtler devices deception when not. Human geography's optimism lies in its belief that asymmetrical relationships and exploitation can be removed, or reversed. What human geography does not consider, and what humanistic geography does, is the role they play in nearly all human contacts and exchanges. If we examine them conscientiously, no one will feel comfortable throwing the first stone. As for deception, significantly, only Zoroastrianism among the great religions has the command, "Thou shalt not lie." After all, deception and lying are necessary to smoothing the ways of social life.

From this, I conclude that humanistic geography is neglected because it is too hard. Nevertheless, it should attract the tough-minded and idealistic, for it rests ultimately on the belief that we humans can face the most unpleasant facts, and even do something about them, without despair.

Best wishes,




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