Philosophy of History/Human Interaction With the Environment

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In this article Paul A. Gagnon, Principal Investigator for the Bradley Commission, discusses the theme “Human Interaction With The Environment,” placing history and geography in an inseparable matrix of time and place.’

Early in its report, the Bradley Commission set a major challenge for historians and teachers of history everywhere. Historical study, it said, should have as its principal aim the development of modes of thoughtful judgment, “habits of mind” that embodied, but also reached well beyond, the skill of critical thinking. One of these habits was to understand and to apply to history’s turning points, the close relationship between geography and history as a “matrix of time and place,” a context for events. And again, under “Vital Themes and Narratives,” the Commission set forth human interaction with the environment as one of the six fundamental themes to be developed in the study of American History, Western Civilization, and World History.

In all three areas, the Commission said, students should first grasp the choices made possible (and limited) by climate, resources, and location, and then explore how the choices actually made were affected by the given society’s particular culture, values, interests, and ways of decision-making, and how certain choices were encouraged or excluded by other, sometimes outside, forces at work, even by the vagaries of powerful individual personalities. It is easy enough to state this proposition in general terms, and even to win agreement for using the marriage of history and geography as the continuing core of the social studies in our schools. But it is sometimes not so obvious how one may apply it to particular courses, grade by grade. Perhaps a few examples will help.

In the early grades, the student of very different ways of life of Native American groups can most memorably be rooted in the different environments to which they had to adapt, even in locations relatively close to each other, not to mention the vast differences between plains and woodlands. In the early history of the United States, subgroups of the history class may “settle” the different colonies, and lay out the promising and unpromising geographical features of their respective locations. One outgrowth of such an exercise is to explain those conditions of climate, soil, resources and population that encouraged the spread of slave labor in the American South and helped to discourage it in the North. The long consequences of that are enormous, and tragic, down to our own day.

Tracing the routes of the explorers, and reliving their adventures, is a continuing confrontation with geography and the elements on one side and human will (and often frail technology) on the other. An extension of this exercise is to trace the routes of immigrants from their homes of origin to the New World and to the localities of their settlement. Which of the students’ ancestors (or present day families) were able to find new homes very like their old homes in climate and resources? Which were unable to, and why?

Student military buffs will want to analyze the geographical advantages and disadvantages of North and South in the Civil War, and how well or badly the governments and commanders exploited them. What of a crucial battlefield such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg? What part was played by roads, rivers, and terrain, given the weapons, transport and communications of those days? In the realm of economic development, what geographical advantages did American industry enjoy in its remarkable expansion after the Civil War? Do contemporary developing nations enjoy any of the same? How does one account for great economic contrasts between societies which have largely similar geographical conditions?

Such questions are particularly useful in following world history. What forces and choices allowed island peoples like the British and Japanese to develop world power seemingly out of proportion to their resources at hand? In ancient history, the significance of river valleys is a fundamental starting-point, to be followed by the sharp contrasts between different cultures’ adaptation to them.

Other questions abound. How did their geographical location affect the fate and outlook of the Jewish people, and how are these reflected in the Old Testament? How were climate, soil, resources and geography instrumental in the decline and fall of Rome? How did these both help and obstruct the unification of Chinese empires? And mainly obstruct the unification of Europe up to modern times?

What was the role of geography in the rise of Renaissance Italy, and in its subsequent decline and insecurity? Why did Prussia and Poland develop such different political and military systems in response to very similar geographical problems? Why Charles XII, Napoleon and Hitler all fail to grasp the problems posed by Russian geography and climate? What are the chances for human choice and ingenuity to overcome those forces of climate and geography that produce famine?

Are there lessons to be learned from the past? Can particular human responses to environmental crises in history help us to frame sensible questions and choices in an era of unprecedented ecological problems across the globe?

That these questions are but a tiny few among all those we could ask as we study the past is proof enough that human life is caught up in the “matrix of time and place,” as a never-ending drama of human interaction with the environment that we shall all have to understand much better if we are to preserve our freedom of choice and exercise it responsibly.