The genius loci

  • Written by  Edward Yates
  • Published in Opinions
‘All geographical teaching should begin with a study of the immediate vicinity on foot’ ‘All geographical teaching should begin with a study of the immediate vicinity on foot’ Sunti
12 Aug
2016
Geography – both physical and human – can help people establish a sense of place, often simply by going for a walk

Necessary to all of us is a sense of place, to recognise and be familiar with the genius loci. That is, somewhere we feel at home, with familiar faces and scenery, a culture with which we can identify and which holds for us a future.

Without this familiarity giving a sense of security, we feel at odds with our surroundings, alienated, rootless, no sense of belonging. It is a paradox that despite the enormous advances in IT there has been an increase in personal solitude. This was noted by the French anthropologist Marc Augé who wrote of the ‘non-lieux de la surmodernite’.

In order to attempt to remedy these problems in society it would appear we need the assistance of three disciplines; sociology, history and geography. Sociology with its emphasis on who gets what and why, should ultimately lessen the difference in incomes by achieving a fairer distribution of the national cake. As such it is an unpopular subject with the powers that be and is much neglected in the national curriculum.

Although physical geography and human geography were both in the same department, not divorced, they were separated

History has now become episodic. A pupil has knowledge of the Tudors and the First World War, but little continuity. History, if it can have a more social aspect rather than dynastic, and if it can show continuity rather than the present episodic approach, should help us understand our institutions and help towards a sense of belonging.

So what is the role of geography? Geography suffered a sterile period when it was devoted to the parrot learning of ‘Capes and Bays’. Vidal de la Blache’s Tableau de la Géographie de la France published in 1905 ushered in a new period. It argued that the landscape was fashioned by man, but man’s lifestyle was influenced by the natural geological and climatic factors. The pays concept was developed, where small regions had a characteristic settlement pattern and agricultural system. This ‘Vidalian’ approach survived until 1965, but was abandoned as outdated.

This was due to American influence. In the States the physical aspects of geography are placed in geology. Geography consisted solely of the human response, without real discussion of environmental influences. And geography in Britain had an inferiority complex as not being scientific. This appears to be based on the theory that a science must be mathematically based. But can the genius loci be expressed in mathematical terms? That is at least arguable. The publication in 1965 of Haggett and Chorley’s Frontiers in Geographical Teaching gave the ‘required’ mathematics and statistics but also appeared to give human geography such inspiring tasks as determining the best location for a supermarket.

Physical geography emphasised the precise measurement of slopes without any overriding explanatory theory. And although physical geography and human geography were both in the same department, not divorced, they were separated. Geography lost much simply to earn entry to the sciences.

Geography is a vigorous discipline, with no real need to justify itself

Before Haggett and Chorley, Geography teaching had also became very much field based. Field Work became a recognised element of the geographical and geological curricula. The two subjects were very close in many universities and this helped maintain an emphasis on ‘learning through one’s feet’. A nearby coach excursion was normally included in a field week, with the main aim of putting the more local study into context. Much of this has disappeared. There are still field classes but the majority are mainly excursions to far away places. It is of course a good thing to have some knowledge, say, of Italian landscapes, but not at the expense of a knowledge of one’s immediate environment.

This is therefore a plea for a return to the study on foot of the immediate environment and to undo some of the damage done by Haggett and Chorley. It is of little consequence whether the subject is considered a science. Geography is a vigorous discipline, with no real need to justify itself.

Modern human geography is a powerful analytical tool. Physical geography, with its abandonment of Penckian and Davisian concepts has become perhaps more descriptive of phenomena. Geography is also a synthesising discipline and in synthesis unites both aspects of the subject. A study of landscape reveals the fundamental geology, the pedology, the biology (including lichenology), microclimatology, history, and sociology. This can all be achieved by a study of the local area on foot.

It is therefore advocated that all geographical teaching should begin with a study of the immediate vicinity on foot. As in Pestalozzian theory this should commence in the junior school and continue in later education. By so doing the two halves of the subject are reunited. For the individual the learning process is enhanced, and they are given the opportunity to establish a link with the genius loci, to have roots and to belong.

Dr Edward Yates is an author and former lecturer in geography at King’s College, London and Keele University

This was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in OPINIONS...

Opinions

Is it time for a new and radical approach to alleviating…

Opinions

Plastic-free aisles in our local supermarkets may just be key…

Opinions

As reports of tourists being fed dog meat in Bali…

Opinions

The idea of rewilding boar into the UK’s landscapes is…

Opinions

2017 is the Chinese year of the chicken. This year, the…

Opinions

Despite the many claims of authenticity, modern filmmaking is still…

Opinions

With medical (and especially dental) tourism on the rise, Vitali…

Opinions

More drugs than you might think are derived from, or…

Opinions

The growth of cities is one of the defining challenges…

Opinions

On a long-awaited return to Ukraine, Vitali Vitaliev finds a…

Opinions

The world is changing, but one thing stays the same…

Opinions

We live in an age where awe and wonder at the…

Opinions

$150million. That is the estimated black market value of the…

Opinions

How many other species do we share our planet with?…

Opinions

Geography – both physical and human – can help people…

Opinions

Whether anthropogenic climate change began over 8,000 years ago or within…

Opinions

Could artificial dams, placed at the heads of glaciers be…

Opinions

What does a life outside the European Union mean for…

Opinions

Rewilding needs to be positioned as a forward looking and…

Opinions

The UK has a two-track system of support that distinguishes…