Thursday, November 09, 2006

Why Geography Has Not Returned to Harvard

World War II was the high point for American geography. Geographers worked in all branches of the government and were making a difference in government policy. Almost as important was that the American public knew why geography was important. This changed almost as soon as the war was over. Other academics decried geography as mere description. This happened at Harvard when geologist Marland P. Billings successful managed to pull geography out of Harvard because it was "not a university subject."

Fast forward fifty-nine years and Harvard is celebrating claiming geography is back. The big news is the launch of the Center for Geographic Analysis. The news was greeted so widely in the academic subuniverse of geography that the Harvard Geographic Society has pretty much gone into hibernation mode as an independent group.

Catholicgauze still is not happy. By "geography" they do not mean physical geography or geography that I use to help understand the world but GIS! Catholicgauze feels GIS is a useful tool, as other disciplines are using the Center for, but too many geographers and non-geographers worship the tool as an end in and of itself. Until a respectful concentration in areas like physical and world regional geography return to Harvard Catholicgauze will moan its state at the university.

Category: GeoInfo


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your points here. Another line of thought is that many geographers have praised the "return of geography" because it is the return of something explicitly geographical. While this is a nice start and all, I am not convinced that this will actually lead to a geography department. A true "return of geography" to Harvard would be as an academic geography department staffed by competent individuals representing the breadth of modern geographical inquiry. Harvard's history department has 57 faculty members and earth and planetary sciences has around 27...just saying.

Anonymous said...

For any scholar to say the Geography is not a university subject is emblematic of a mindset that is unworthy to serve in the academy. Pettiness, and unseemly motivations, such as those held and espoused by the likes of Isaiah Bowman, James Conant, and Marland Billngs at the end of WWII set in motion trends that echo down the decades into our own time. During the interim Geographers grasped at straws to eschew the charge of "mere description". First it was "quantitative methods" and most recently "GIS," which has been elevated to savior status for the Field of Geography, with everything else being merely tributary-A case of the tail wagging the dog. But with the perspective of time, the honest observer can conclude that like the the vaunted "quantitative" revolution of the 1960s, "GIS" is merely additive and not revelatory. Unfortunately many Geographers have been train in such a way as not understanding the difference between tools and critical thinking. Thus the scientific power and majesty of Geographical study is lost on those whose zeitgeist does not permit them to see the solution to scientific problems from an interdisciplinary perspective, which has always been the hallmark of the Science of Geography. Not to recognize this fundamental reality, is to promulgate a sterile scholarly environment. Until full blown field of Geography is returned to Harvard University, it will not be a complete academy.

Catholicgauze said...

Great point Anon, I agree 100%