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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

James Michener on Geography

James Michener on Geography
The Queenly Science

(A geography quote from

"The more I work in the social-studies field the more convinced I become that Geography is the foundation of all. When I call it the queenly science, I do not visualize a bright-eyed young woman recently a princess but rather an elderly, somewhat beat-up dowager, knowing in the way of power.
When I begin work on a new area – something I have been called upon to do rather frequently in my adult life – I invariably start with the best geography I can find. This take precedence over everything else, even history, because I need to ground myself in the fundamentals which have governed and in a sense limited human development. … Most geography books, like most geography courses, are drab affairs and a waste of time. I have dissipated many hours looking at geographies that were not worth the reading, but when you come upon something like Preston James' speculative works on South America the philosophical returns are apt to be high. However, even the poorest regional geography is better than none at all; it at least delimits the field, fixes certain relationships, and drives the reader to a contemplation of his own.

With growing emphasis on ecology and related problems of the environment, geography will undoubtedly grow in importance and relevance. I wish that the teaching of it were going to improve commensurately; most of the geography courses I have known were rather poorly taught and repelled the general student like me.

I could make the same wish about geographical writing. It ought to be much better than it is, with more emphasis upon generalization and philosophical meaning. Television has done much to awaken the general viewer to geographical matters – but this is merely a pleasant tourism, sight-seeing. What is required is the perceptive analysis of the land and man's relationship to it. If one has this solid footing, then the television travelogue can be of enormous additional value. Without it, the television program is harmless entertainment and provides little evident for reaching conclusion on major problems.

If I were a young man with any talent for expressing myself, and if I wanted to make myself indispensable to my society, I would devote eight to ten years to the real mastery of one of the earth's major regions. I would learn languages, the religions, the customs, the value systems, the history, the nationalisms, and above all the geography, and when that was completed I would be in position to write about that region, and I would be invaluable to my nation, for I would be the bridge of understanding to the alien culture. We have seen how crucial such bridges can be.

Believe me, if I were well schooled in one of these vital areas and if I had even a modest gift for writing I would have an insurance policy for the rest of my life, because we need perceptive books about these cultures."

Extract from "The Mature Social Studies Teacher," Social Education, November, 1970. pp. 760-767

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