Once upon a time, schoolchildren could be expected to know the name of the mountains separating France from Spain, the location of the Nile River, the capitals ofall fifty states, and what and where the Pampas could be found. Now, even adults have a hard time naming the most populous city in the U.S. or the countries of Asia. These are, indeed, sad times, and doomed to become sadder if this geographic ignorance is not turned to knowledge.
Without a firm grasp on geography, how can we expect to know anything about history? History is rooted in a sense of place. Why did the Union troops lose the Battle of Cold Harbor? Because they were attacking Confederate fortifications uphill. And if you don't know anything about the Alps, the fact that Hannibal's army crossed them with elephants won't surprise you near as much as it should. Understanding the physical terrain and the demographics of an area are essential to understanding the history of that region.
Which is why studying history by place is such a good idea. There are cultural considerations, of course, and these can be immensely helpful guides in their own right, but simply looking at the lay of the land so to speak will provide a sense of context more abstract boundaries never can. African history, for instance, makes so much more sense if you know what the continent is like.
Even cultures are influenced by geography. Take the United States: some of the most important advances in transportation technology happened within her borders largely due to necessity. The steam engine train was perfected here, automobiles and airplanes were invented here, and in the last few decades we've led the world in space exploration.
It's not that no one traveled before the 19th and 20th century, or outside the North American continent—it's just that because the new nation was so vast, and there were so many natural barriers (the Mississippi River, the Grand Tetons and Great Smokey Mountains, the Mojave Desert), new forms of getting from here to there were not only a good idea, they were a necessity.
There probably isn't one instance in the history of the world in which geography and events weren't directly tied. Certainly this is true for military history, and exploration, and agriculture, but it's also true of ideas and ideologies. Part of the reason slavery was such an important part of Southern culture in the U.S. was that cotton was an immensely growable crop and only armies of slaves could be counted on to get all the work done; in order to justify the use of forced labor, however, a philosophical ethos was developed.
Other instances may be more obscure, but no less true. In France, the mild climate and fertile country led to a series of approaches to thought that emphasized experience and the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake (particularly existentialism); in ancient Greece, the geographical isolation enforced by mountains and seas allowed democratic polity to emerge among the city states.
Geography and history are pretty much Siamese twins, and academic technology has not advanced to the point where they can be separated without risk of life to both. We've organized the subcategories in this section along pretty standard lines (continents, countries, and the like), but standards arise because they work. Explore a region you're unfamiliar with; you're likely to uncover quite a few surprises.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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