Article by Smithsonian (January 18, 2018)

The Woman Who Transformed How We Teach Geography

By blending education and activism, Zonia Baber made geography a means of uniting—not conquering—the globe

On the morning of October 30, 1916, Zonia Baber stood in front of four hundred government officials and leaders in the arts and sciences and told them to go to hell.
As a representative of the University of Chicago, where she taught geography, Baber was testifying in court on behalf of the Sand Dunes of Indiana, which she argued were deserving of National Park status. She concluded by saying: “I can truthfully say that I should like to believe in the old orthodox Hades for the people who will not save the dunes now for the people who are to come.” Today, the sand dunes are part of the protected Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Baber’s unapologetic speech was emblematic of her work as both a geographer and activist—two parts of her life that often blended and intertwined. As a geographer, she worked tirelessly to reform geography education to make it more meaningful and worthwhile for students. At first glance, her legacy appears to be that of an educator and reformer. Yet at the same time, she transformed the field of geography, by seeing it not as a means of colonization but of connection and understanding between cultures.
By the 18th century, geography was a particularly feminized branch of science. The subject, which appealed to American republican values of utility, nationalism, and self-improvement, was the first science to be widely integrated into girls’ schools after the American Revolution (1765-1783), as historian of education Kim Tolley documents in her 2003 book The Science Education of American Girls. As contemporary historians relate, 18th and 19th century cultural beliefs relegated women to the roles of mothers and teachers—uniquely positioning them to pass along these values to younger generations and keep alive the values of a new post-revolution republic.
Yet the field was about more than merely patriotism. The study of geography had long been used to bolster national pride and imperialist agendas of European countries and the United States. During Baber’s time, says geographer Janice Monk, who co-wrote an extensive 2015 biographal profile of Baber, “Many geographers believed that environment determined culture and cultural accomplishments, and geographers and the general public believed that Western culture was the epitome of cultural achievement.” These beliefs, in turn, justified white Western occupation of places that were seen as “less civilized” through the lens a Eurocentric worldview—a worldview that Baber would come to challenge…

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