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
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 This ‘Vidalian’ approach survived until 1965, but was abandoned as outdated.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.

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