Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/April 1896/The New Geography



THE doctrine that land forms have had a history chiefly distinguishes the new geography from the old. Geography, indeed, takes account of sea as well as land, of the phenomena of the atmosphere, the distribution of organisms, including man, of economic products and political divisions. But the new phase of geography, which is sometimes known as physiography, and later, as geomorphology, is not an isolated and formal element of the science; it rather underlies the whole, modifying or, more truly, controlling climate, organic distribution, and the history of man. The new geography can not, therefore, be charged with infringing upon the rights of the old, for it contributes vitality, unity, and continuity to the whole range of geographic fact and theory; it rejects absolutely the category of the author of one of our textbooks in physical geography, that the air, the water, and the land are "the three dead geographic forms."

Geography is sometimes defined as a description of the earth as it is, without reference to its past. One author has called it the science of distribution, but well adds that because it is a science it can not rest in a mere record, but must have the causes. The new movement has simply applied the evolutionary principle to geography, giving it the life and freedom which this doctrine has imparted to all other sciences in our day. It has been seriously asked whether the new notion of geography does not confuse it with geology. Thus the minority report of the Conference on Geography to the Committee of Ten criticises the majority report as bearing too plainly the marks of the geologist's hand. It may as well be frankly admitted that geography and geology overlap. All sciences transgress each other's boundaries, and all bounds in Nature are largely matters of convenience. Geology never truly interpreted terrestrial history until, with Hutton and Lyell, it took to studying geography. Nor will the geographer understand the earth which he sees until he takes account of geology. Land forms can not be truly seen or faithfully described until seen and described in the light of their origin. Such forms will hide themselves from the student who thinks they are dead. For him they might nearly as well be buried. The geologist who seeks, for example, the causes of volcanism, will find help in his study of the distribution and relative action of existing volcanoes—in other words, he can not keep from geography. The geographer, in his turn, needs the perspective of ancient volcanic history, if he would appreciate his own facts. Because he has commonly had no such vista, he has burdened generations of boys with the solemn blunder that a volcano is a burning mountain. Thus we may vindicate for each science its own center while granting a generous measure of common facts. The difference is in the point of view, the aim, and method of treatment; the geologist seeks largely that which has been, the geographer that which is, and each must be known in the light of the other. It is precisely the case with two biologists, one of whom studies living, the other fossil, forms. The day is past when they can work apart; yet none would deny that their fields are reasonably differentiated.

The new geography is a recent growth. Its facts and principles are little diffused and have not found their way into text-books. Thus it came about that the Conference report on geography is characterized as the most revolutionary of all those received by the Committee of Ten on secondary-school studies. Even scientific surveys of the several States do not yet show much impress of the new doctrines. Prof. Davis, the geographer of Harvard University, affirms that his students search, with meager reward, for accounts of physical features in the literature of the several States. As the same writer has truthfully said, systematic study of topography is largely American, and for the reason that the broad object lessons of the Appalachians and of the West gave our scholars the opportunity and the stimulus to lead in such researches.

The central principle of the new geography established by Powell, Button, Gilbert, Davis, and other American geographers and geologists is the doctrine of a base level of erosion as the goal of the destructive processes. Given an early "constructional "land surface, such as a newly raised sea bottom, and it will pass through what is called a cycle of development. Youth, with extended uplands and steep, narrow valleys, is followed by a much dissected, highly diversified topography marking the stage of maturity, whence is a gradual passage to the low reliefs, slight gradients, and quiet monotony of old age. During this cycle all forms of scenery have place, and in untrammeled variety, dependent upon climate and the constitution and structure of the mass upon which this land sculpture is wrought. Thus the horizontal beds of the Catskills give one type, the folded sediments of the Appalachians another, and the crystalline masses of the Adirondacks a third. Before such a cycle is completed in an actual base level, a new cycle is often introduced, by massive uplifts or depressions of the region concerned. All these principles are illustrated in infinite detail on our Atlantic seaboard from New England to Georgia, and the new method is fast becoming a master key for unlocking both the geological history and present meaning of all continental areas. McGee goes so far as to say that "nearly as much information concerning the geologic history of the Atlantic slope has been obtained from the topographic configuration of the region within two years (1887 and 1888) as was gathered from the sediments of the coastal plain and their contained fossils in two generations." Davis urges the co-operation of State surveys in such advanced and rational geographic work, and with a view to reports which shall be of immediate service to the public and to the schools. A large element in this geographic advance has been the emphasis laid upon geographic work by Major Powell as Director of the United States Geological Survey, a policy with which Mr. Walcott, the present director, appears to be in fullest accord. A good map reveals more land history to a trained geographer of the modern school than most others can find out in the actual field. The geologists, teachers of geography, and indeed all citizens of New York are losers by the failure of our legislators to provide more liberally and promptly for the study of our geography by new methods. A great commonwealth, which Prof. Hall and his associates made classic geologic ground for all time, finds the knowledge of its geography in a backward state as compared with its neighbors, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

What place is the new geography to have in our system of education? This just now is the question of importance and the center of much discussion. Geography in the lower schools has served to impart a group of facts about the world, which respectability and convenience require a youth to have. Cultural value has not been enough considered, and from the higher schools the subject has more often been absent. With the tendency of the times, geography has of late been taught to the child more from out-of-door and local facts, and so has come nearer the new geography in its spirit. But the teaching yet lacks breadth and strength, because the principles of the subject have not yet become available to teachers, except in favored centers. That geography of the new type lends itself to the training of the reason there can be no question. The causes of geographic forms arouse inquiry in nearly all persons. Minds of all grades become alert when the origin of soils, rocks, fossils, valleys, terraces, lakes, swamps, hills, waterfalls, mountains, and continents is explained in common language. A discreet teacher, at home in the subject, has no difficulty in bringing the main doctrines of geographic development within the comprehension of children. It is not hard to conceive a country of hills and valleys as a surface partly worn toward a goal of lowland denudation, and then to find in the forms visible from the schoolhouse window ever-varying episodes in this history. It is not to be understood that this larger conception will be put upon the pupil at the outset; he will rather proceed from the minor passages of the land history to its main and grand movement. The brook, gravel bank, ravine, and hillock will lead to a mental picture of the township, county, State, and continent. And it is not to be forgotten that the animals and plants, clouds and storms, climate and productions, highways, cities, and all other material of geography will have their place in the teaching; it is only held that they will gather new meaning as they take their places in a comprehensive scheme of geographic development. It is of small account that the new teaching has what may be called a geologic aspect; names matter little when the only rational knowledge of geography is concerned.

Prof. W. B. Powell has given in the National Geographic Magazine an elaborate outline of the progress in the public schools of Washington toward such a rational understanding of the geography of the United States, beginning with the particular and working toward the general, in the field and by laboratory methods, as with specimens, maps, drawing, and sand modeling. The fullest pedagogical statement of the meaning and needs of the new geography for schools below college grade is contained in the Conference report on geography, to which reference has been made. The names appended to it stamp it as a representative utterance, and it is enough here to refer the interested reader to the document itself, only citing the final paragraph of the discussion of it by President Eliot's committee: "They (the Conference) recommend a study of physical geography, which would embrace in its scope the elements of half a dozen natural sciences and would bind together in one sheaf the various gleanings which the pupils would have gathered from widely separated fields. There can be no doubt that the study would be interesting, informing, and developing, or that it would be difficult and in every way substantial."

Geography is winning its way to a place in the college and the university. Objection has been raised for the reason tersely stated by some one that the subject is "a graphy and not a logy." But we have seen that the new geography is not only a descriptive and distributive body of truth; it is historical and causal. The older geography has allied itself, so far as it has had place in the university, chiefly with history. The new geography offers a yet larger contribution to history, but will ally itself more closely with the sciences of Nature, particularly geology. At the same time it will gain in its philosophical aspects, bringing it into harmony with Krapotkin's definition as "in its higher stages a philosophical review of knowledge acquired by different branches of science."

I have recently compared the catalogues of fifty of the better-known American colleges and universities. Thirty-three of these documents afford no reason to suppose that geography receives systematic attention in their respective institutions. Of the remaining seventeen. Harvard University and the University of Chicago give the fullest measure of instruction, and wholly, it scarcely need be added, of the most progressive type. In both, geography makes part of the department of geology. Harvard has, as is well known, a thoroughly equipped geographic laboratory, and offers largely attended elementary and advanced courses in meteorology and physical geography. Among the subjects of research by advanced special students last year were: the topographical development of shore lines, the flood plain of the Mississippi, the Great Plains of the West, the effect of local topography on general winds, and the features of arctic climate. In Chicago we find courses in physiography or genetic geography; in geographic geology, treating the origin, development, and destruction of geographic features and the significance of landscape contours, or geophysiognomy. There are laboratory work in geographic geology, and a course in what is called dynamic geography, inclusive of the agencies involved in geographic evolution. Yale offers one course in physical geography, embracing the elements of dynamic geology and natural history; also one course of twelve lectures on physical geography in relation to political history. Princeton has two courses, physical geography proper, based on Guyot's text-book, and physical geography in relation to history. Cornell has one course, with emphasis on development of topographic forms, and also a course in glacial geology. Michigan does not offer the subject formally, but the development of topography is taught under geology. Vassar, Hamilton, Rochester, Wesleyan, and North Carolina give instruction in physiography. Leland Stanford, Jr., has a course in topographic geology, and Oberlin a course in quaternary geology. At Amherst the subject is treated briefly with historical geology, and at Colgate seminary and field courses are given in the history of topography and in glacial geology.

In many of the above institutions, but not in all, the new geography evidently has place, though the variety of nomenclature and method shows how new the subject is to the higher schools. In several cases its presence is directly traceable to the influence of Harvard. As a whole it may be said that geography is not yet considered a necessary theme in American colleges. When present, it is often due to the appreciation or special tastes of instructors in geology. In England, geography was recognized as a university study by Oxford and Cambridge first in 1887 and 1888. In Germany it fares better, as would be expected, though there late in recognition as compared with other subjects. In 1893, as stated by Prof. H. Wagner, there were twenty-eight professors and teachers at eighteen of the twenty-one universities of Germany, but without unanimity of conception, in some the relation to history prevailing, while in others geology and biology were the companion themes.

In America, the recently organized National Geographic Society, while most active in discovery, has done much to take geography from the field of mere exploration and build it into a science, and it has now provided, through one of the large publishing houses, a series of monographs for teachers, in which certain great geographic units in our own country are described by accomplished scholars. It is also a cheerful fact that a considerable body of pedagogical literature has grown up in this field during the last five years.

It can scarcely be needful to urge the value of the new geographic study. The sources of intellectual satisfaction are greatly multiplied, and ennobling means of recreation may be placed in the way of every intelligent person, largely apart from the expenditure of money or the possession of special opportunity. Familiar landscapes take on fresh interest, because they become vital and are for the first time really observed. Travel becomes delightful rather than, as to so many, irksome, and otherwise dreary hours are made into a fascinating opportunity for true culture. Every reader knows how much of Parkman's charm is due to his geographic sense and facile photography of locality. H. J. Mackinder, of Oxford, has remarked that "John Richard Green's Making of England is largely a deduction from geographical conditions of what must have been the course of the history." Prof. Powell suggests the ideal teaching, in saying of geography in the schools of Washington, "North America is studied physically, in which connection it is studied historically also, so that national lines or divisions are seen to move back and forth and finally become fixed by physical causes when such exist, as is the case frequently." General A. W. Greely has recently quoted the amusing remark, "It is fortunate that great rivers run by so many great cities!" Geographic study soon supplies the real logic of such connections and of those less evident, and illumines historic and economic research at every turn. The reconstruction of the geographies of geologic time must surely shed floods of light upon the development and distribution of existing organisms, including man himself. Glacial geology also, with its vast contribution to our knowledge of the earth, past and present, supplies one of the best illustrations of the new geography in its fellowship with geology. Glaciation is mainly a matter of climate and topography, with perhaps a measure of cosmic influence; in short, it is an affair of geography. Of that keen scrutiny of surface forms carried on by glacial science the new geography has largely been born. Some will ask what economic value accrues with this vast devotion to scientific geography which the next generation will see. Surely no field of science will yield a larger intellectual harvest, and the economic significance of pure science, though sometimes out of sight, is never far away.