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    How Geography is History’s Secret Weapon

    February 18, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    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.

    How Geography is History's Secret Weapon

    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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  • Reply Laura L. March 2, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    Ha! Were you one of my students? Because I was that overly infatuated geography teacher! I love geography, even more so since going through Halliburton’s Book of Marvels with my kiddos. My favorite phrase when I was a “professional” teacher was that “geography is the stage upon which history is played.” SO much history depends upon geography – in both small and large ways. For instance, the battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg were in a sense mirror images – and the handful of Union soldiers who recognized the value of high ground at Gettysburg and held on to it tenaciously are probably responsible for us living in a UNITED States of America today. I want my students to be those soldiers! Or at least to be people who see, recognize, and honor the influence that geography has on people.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 3, 2023 at 9:03 am

      My theory is that Halliburton can make almost anybody love geography — only the heartless remain unaffected! ♥

  • Reply Fresh Feature: Friday Five | Simply Convivial January 23, 2018 at 8:32 am

    […] most books I buy on Brandy’s recommendation, Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels has not been a […]

  • Reply GJanasik September 6, 2016 at 10:50 am

    I teach 7th grade geography, so I appreciate your article!

  • Reply Fresh Feature: Friday Five » Simply Convivial January 22, 2016 at 9:06 am

    […] most books I buy on Brandy’s recommendation, Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels has not been a […]

  • Reply Jenny P. January 12, 2016 at 7:38 am

    I have a book suggestion for you that really brought this idea together for me: Consider the Fork, by Bee Wilson. She looks at different kitchen utensils and their significance to the culture they are found it, which is highly influenced by geography. A very brief example: roasted meats in Europe where firewood is plentiful vs stir fries in China where it is more scarce, which then affects the utensils used (personal pocket knives vs chop sticks), which affects cultural views on weapons, etc. It’s well worth the read!

    Once I broke through memorizing states and capitals and feature names into realizing that geography matters and affects EVERYTHING, I find it one of the most fascinating subjects!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 12, 2016 at 9:15 am

      Ooh! That sounds really interesting! Putting it on my list. Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂

  • Reply Carol February 20, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    Weighing in here with a wee bit of Scottish trivia on the subject of Geography, Brandy. My dad used to say that the Geordies (English folk in the Newcastle area just across the border) were ‘Scots wi’ their heids bashed in,’ which was a backhanded compliment.
    My ‘Glesga’ (from Glasgow, in the Lowlands) Grannie, used to say ‘Och don’t be so heilan!’ – if someone was clumsy, meaning they must be a Highlander.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 21, 2015 at 8:07 am

      Oh my goodness! I love things like that! I’ve noticed those sorts of sentiments in books I’ve read recently — different opinions on lowlands and highlanders — SO interesting! And what a neat history your family must have. 🙂

  • Reply Sara McD February 19, 2015 at 11:33 am

    I had never loved geography; I had, in fact, never studied geography. I think some relatives told me that the Great Lakes could be remembered by the acronym HOMES but that was meaningless to me except as a bit of trivia because I still didn’t know which lake was which, where they came from, where they went. But now I find Geography almost as interesting as science and I owe it mostly to Richard Halliburton and my son Jack’s thirst for knowledge about real people and places.

    My kids all love the story about Mr. Halliburton swimming the Panama Canal. Doesn’t he sound like such an adventurous person? I think at least one of mine wants to follow in his footsteps.

    We watched a few of the “How the States Got Their Shapes” series. It was interesting but had that weird, jumpy, reality tv repetitive format and I couldn’t take too much of it. I think I prefer straight documentary.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 19, 2015 at 12:00 pm

      Sara, Have you read any of the other Halliburton books? I recently discovered them. I assume they are written for adults, and I’m tempted!

      • Reply Sara McD February 19, 2015 at 2:24 pm

        I haven’t but I think I’m going to.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel February 19, 2015 at 2:37 pm

          You will have to let me know what you think! If you like them, I’ll get some. 🙂

      • Reply Laura February 25, 2023 at 7:41 pm

        My husband loves the book How the States Got Their Shapes, which is very different from the show! You should check it out.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel March 1, 2023 at 3:41 pm

          Thanks! I have had it on my TBR stack for a long time!

    • Reply Sara December 29, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      In my 6th grade geography book there was a sentence to help remember the Great Lakes from West to East, “She made Harry eat onions.” Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario. The only thing I remember from that year.

  • Reply Melissa February 19, 2015 at 5:16 am

    This is timely Brandy!…geography must be on the brain since I posted regarding the subject earlier in the week 🙂

    I actually LOVE geography and always have! Growing up in a small rural midwestern town, I signed up for a geography class at our local high school. Unfortunately, only 7 other kids shared my passion (or could fit it in their schedule ;-), so the class was canceled. I never forgot it and always felt ripped off….LOL.

    BTW, the Holling C. Holling books pictured in my post are a fabulous way to study geography!

    I don’t know what it is about geography?! Maybe it’s the people/cultures…or the thought of warmer climates (it’s currently -20 with the wind chill here in WI 🙁 I just love maps!!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 19, 2015 at 8:28 am

      Oh, we love Holling C Holling, too, Melissa! Isn’t he great? I’m doing Seabird with my two younger students in a couple years, I think.

      I do not stare longingly at a map of WI this time of year! 🙁

      • Reply Melissa February 19, 2015 at 7:09 pm

        “I do not stare longingly at a map of WI this time of year!”….LOL. I don’t think you’re alone 🙂

        Yes Holling is great! We’ve read Paddle to the Sea and Tree in the Trail for our first and second term this year. I plan to read Seabird coming up in a week for third term….looking forward to it!

  • Reply Heidi @ Mt Hope February 18, 2015 at 11:40 am

    My boys have really been enjoying How the States Got Their Shapes, as well. It shows how boundaries are affected by so many things!

    Loved this post, Brandy, especially since my son is learning how to draw the world freehand, by memory, this year.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 18, 2015 at 11:52 am

      Ooh! That is on my list — drawing the world freehand, I mean. We’re going to start the lessons on drawing a world map by hand from Draw Write Now very soon. So exciting. I hope you post a photo of his maps! 🙂

  • Reply Linda February 18, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Have you ever seen any of the episodes of “How the States Got Their Shape”, Fun series!

    Your post is very timely. My husband and I were discussing this very thing just yesterday, about how boring I thought geography was when I was a child…place names, products produced and exported, etc, memorization for tests…like who cares? Not until I was teaching my own children did I get the connection between the land and the cultures and the peoples and the cities that appeared in those places. It’s fascinating!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 18, 2015 at 11:06 am

      No, I haven’t seen that! I will have to check it out! 🙂

  • Reply Sharron February 18, 2015 at 5:16 am

    Ever since using Ann Voskamp’s geography books, I’ve seen the subject in a whole new light! Thanks for this reminder! Also, we love most of the Globe Trekker series. We get them at our library. I do recommend previewing though, especially the European episodes!!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 18, 2015 at 8:44 am

      Ooh! Thank you for sharing these ideas, Sharron! 🙂

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