There is no such thing as world history.
There are many separate histories of nations and peoples,
and they overlap in different ways, places, and times.
— Jacques Barzun, Begin Here
As a child I grew up believing geography to be painfully boring and also pointless. To me, maps told a person how to get from Point A to Point B. That was it. Maps didn’t share important information about a place (not that I really cared about places). I remember one teacher in particular, who seemed a bit overly infatuated with her topographical map. She would wax eloquent about it, but I zoned out.
I could pass a geography test just fine, but I failed to see why it mattered.
Why it matters came to me suddenly on a fine spring day two years ago. E-Age-Twelve (then Ten) and I were reading a chapter from the most excellent geography book I have ever read, Richard Halliburton’s Second Book of Marvels: The Orient. It was the chapter on Tibet — possibly there were two chapters? — that I found so striking. All the Free Tibet bumper stickers floating around Hollywood couldn’t possibly have prepared me for this.
As Halliburton began to describe the climb up to get into Tibet — the hazardous conditions, the frigid temperatures — an idea slowly dawned in my little brain. I never could figure out why Tibet thought it ought to be separate from China. And I’m not making the argument here that it should be — I’m far too uninformed to involve myself in that sort of debate — but I’m saying I never understood why there was a debate in the first place.
It was the description of the climb that did it, as I said. I suddenly realized that Tibet was a geographically separate place from China. And I’m sure my teacher’s beloved topographical map could have told me so, if I’d only had ears to hear it.
When Jacques Barzun said that world history could not be taught, he followed that statement up with this:
What is possible to teach is world geography, and that subject we neglect on a big scale. Well taught, it would begin to give an idea of the diversity of the physical world and the immense variety of the cultures that have arisen upon it. To behold human adaptation and resourcefulness and the sound reasons why peoples are not all alike is in itself a lesson in tolerance and humility.
It is so easy to read history as a child and never grasp the significance of geography — all these faceless people and characterless settings we read about. And I tend to be drawn to the ideas of history, it’s true. But at the end of the day, one of the primary ways God has directed history is through creation’s topography.
Why does Scotland (or, at least, some Scottish people) want to be separate from England? It’s geographically different — so geographically different that the people, historically, have separate cultures. And yet why does the UK want to keep Scotland and England all as one country? It’s a very small island, truth be told. On a larger map, it certainly looks like one thing. There is a sense in which it is one thing, whether anybody likes the fact or not. I don’t pretend to know the answer to the debate, but the debate has everything to do with geography, that much is certain.
Just the other day, the children were asking me why certain states were shaped so strangely. It was, I think, enlightening for them to learn that it was because the borders of the states were defined by the Mississippi River.
Jacques Barzun tells us that geography is history’s secret weapon. Or perhaps it is more like the key to the door of understanding. No matter. The point is that it’s important; more important than we’re tempted to think.
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