Grappling with Geography's Existential Dilemma: The Legacy of William Torrey Harris

By Downs, Roger M. | The Geographical Review, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Grappling with Geography's Existential Dilemma: The Legacy of William Torrey Harris


Downs, Roger M., The Geographical Review


ABSTRACT. Geography's existence as a school or college subject has never been a given. While geographers make cases for geography's importance, acceptance of those cases rests not on impassioned rhetoric but on the social and intellectual contexts into which disciplines fit. Contexts are contested and they change. From a seemingly secure position at the beginning of the twentieth century, geography's role in American schools has been eroded and diminished by corrosive forces. Geographers need convincing answers to the existential question lest the subject disappear entirely. Geography's enviable position was in large measure the work of William Torrey Harris. Harris made a compelling existential case for geography and his vision, its implementation, its rejection, and its fate offer a model from which geographers can learn. Understanding how to respond to a social and intellectual context is crucial to geography's future.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE: THAT IS THE EXISTENTIAL QUESTION

Members of a discipline see their discipline as a separate, distinctive, and essential way of looking at the world. For practitioners that might be true, but for society as a whole it is not necessarily the case. There are no natural ways of looking at the world. Geography's existence as a school or college subject has never been a given. While geographers make cases for the importance of geography, acceptance of those cases rests not on impassioned rhetoric, but on the contexts into which disciplines fit. Contexts are social and philosophical, reflecting the purposes of education and the structure of knowledge. Contexts are contested, with disagreements as to the intent and delivery of education. Contexts change and so too must the case for a discipline.

How does one make a persuasive case for the necessity of geography, justifying its existence and establishing its place in the curriculum? The existential question has bedeviled school and college geography and continues to do so. Answers must respond to the contingencies of the time, while acknowledging echoes of past contingencies. Geography cannot escape its history of answers to the existential question. Understanding this history is critical in creating a place for geography now and in the future.

The current context is contentious with conflicts over home schooling, school vouchers, charter schools, single-sex education, pay-for-performance instruction, achievement testing, and Common Core Standards (Ravitch 2010; Ravitch 2013). While current conflicts are problematic for geography, the situation at the turn of the twentieth century was equally contentious, but unlike today, geography was a player in curriculum debates. It was a critical period for geography (Martin 2015). The National Geographic Society (NGS) and Association of American Geographers (AAG) were founded, graduate and undergraduate departments were created in universities and colleges, the field was professionalizing, and K-12 geography education was restructured.

William Torrey Harris (1835-1909) was central to this critical period. Through writing, speaking, and administrative leadership, Harris shaped school geography. By analyzing Harris's career, we can understand how an existential case fits within visions of social and philosophical contexts. Visions require visionaries with commitment to a cause, the rhetorical powers to be persuasive, and the capacity to make a difference. Harris met these requirements and carved a place for school geography. In so doing, he foreshadowed the current challenges that geography faces in securing a place in the curriculum.

I begin with a biography of Harris. In the third and fourth sections, I present his philosophy of education and vision of geography. The fifth and sixth sections describe the realization and fate of his vision. In the last pair of sections, I describe school geography's decline and consider ways of answering the existential question now and in the future. …

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