Geography at Harvard

Geography at Harvard: Ousted or Not?

Harvard University
Harvard University's Kirkland House. Getty Images

In the latter half of the 20th century, geography as an academic discipline suffered greatly, especially in American higher education. The reasons for this are undoubtedly many, but the biggest contributor was arguably a decision made at Harvard University in 1948 in which university President James Conant declared geography to be "not a university subject." In the ensuing decades, universities began dropping geography as an academic discipline until it was no longer found in the nation's top schools.

But American Geographer, Carl Sauer, wrote in the opening paragraph of Education of a Geographer that "the interest [in geography] is immemorial and universal; should we [geographers] disappear, the field will remain and not become vacant." Such a prediction is bold to say the very least. But, is Sauer's assertion true? Could geography, with all its historical and contemporary importance, withstand an academic hit like it took at Harvard?

What Happened At Harvard?

In 1948, the president of Harvard University declared that geography was not a university subject and proceeded to remove it from the university curriculum. This set the trend for geography's reputation in American higher education for the next several decades. However, looking into that matter, it is revealed that the elimination of geography had more to do with budget cuts, clashing personalities, and geography's lack of a clear identity than whether or not it was an important subject of academic inquiry.

Several key figures emerge in this debate.

The first was President James Conant. He was a physical scientist, used to the rigorous nature of research and the employment of a distinct scientific methodology, something which geography was accused of lacking at that time. His charge as the president was to guide the university through the financially lean times in the post-World War II years.

The second key figure is Derwent Whittlesey, the chair of the geography department. Whittlesey was a human geographer, for which he was heavily criticized. Physical scientists at Harvard, including many geographers and geologists, felt that human geography was "unscientific," lacked rigor, and was not deserving of a place at Harvard. Whittlesey also had a sexual preference which was not as widely accepted in 1948. He hired his live-in partner, Harold Kemp, as a geography lecturer for the department. Kemp was considered by many a mediocre scholar which lent support to geography's critics.

Alexander Hamilton Rice, another figure in the Harvard geography affair, founded the Institute for Geographical Exploration at the university. He was considered by many to be a charlatan and would often leave on an expedition while he was supposed to be teaching classes. This made him an annoyance to President Conant and the Harvard administration and did not help geography's reputation. Also, prior to founding the institute, Rice and his wealthy wife tried buying the presidency of the American Geographical Society, contingent on Isaiah Bowman, chair of the geography department at Johns Hopkins University, being removed from the position.

Ultimately the plan did not work but the incident did create tension between Rice and Bowman.

Isaiah Bowman was a graduate of the geography program at Harvard and was a promoter of geography, just not at his alma mater. Years earlier, a work of Bowman's had been rejected by Whittlesey for use as a geography textbook. The rejection led to an exchange of letters which strained relations between them. Bowman was also described as puritanical and it is supposed that he did not like Whittlesey's sexual preference. He also did not like Whittlesey's partner, a mediocre scholar, being associated with his alma mater. As a distinguished alumnus, Bowman was part of the committee to evaluate geography at Harvard. It is widely considered that his actions on the geography evaluation committee effectively ended the department at Harvard.

Geographer Neil Smith wrote in 1987 that "Bowman's silence condemned Harvard Geography" and later, when he tried to resuscitate it, "his words put nails in the coffin."

But, Is Geography Still Being Taught At Harvard?

Geographer William Pattison, in an article in 1964, identified the subject matter of geography as belonging to four major categories which he called the Four Traditions of Geography. They are:
  • Earth Science Tradition - earth, water, atmosphere, and relationship to the sun
  • Man-land Tradition - humans and the environment, natural hazards, population, and environmentalism
  • Area Studies Tradition - world regions, international trends, and global relationships
  • Spatial Tradition - spatial analysis, geographic information systems

Researching Harvard academics online reveals the degree-granting programs that can be considered to fit within one of Pattison's four traditions of geography (below). Example courses for each program are included to show the geographic nature of material being taught within them.


Earth Science Tradition

Programs: Oceanography and Earth and Planetary Sciences
Example courses: The Fluid Earth, Oceans, Atmosphere, Climate, and Environment and Environmental Modeling.

Man-land Tradition

Programs: Visual and Environmental Studies, Environmental Science and Public Policy, Economics
Example courses: North American Seacoasts: Discover to Present, Environmental Crises and Population Flight, and Growth and Crises in the World Economy.

Area Studies Tradition

Programs: African and African American Studies, Anthropology, Celtic Languages and Literature, East Asian Programs, Germanic Languages and Literatures, History, Inner Asian and Altaic States, Middle Eastern Studies, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Regional Studies, Romance Languages and Literatures, Byzantine and Medieval Studies, Social Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality
Example courses: Mapping History, The Modern Mediterranean: Connections and Conflicts between Europe and North Africa, Europe and It's Borders, and Mediterranean Spaces.

Spatial Tradition

Programs: Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard (Courses and training are integrated with other classes taught at the university)
Example courses: Mapping Social Environment and Space, Spatial Analysis of Environmental and Social Systems, and Intro to Spatial Models for Public Health.


It appears that after examining what's presently being taught at Harvard, Carl Sauer was right: Should geographers disappear, the field of geographical scholarship will remain. Even though it was dismissed at Harvard, the case can easily be made that it's still being taught, albeit by a different name. Perhaps the most convincing evidence is the Center for Spatial Analysis, teaching geographic information systems (GIS), mapping, and spatial analysis.

It's also important to note that geography was likely ousted at Harvard because of clashing personalities and budgets cuts, not because it wasn't an important academic subject. One could say that it was up to geographers to defend the reputation of geography at Harvard and they failed. Now it is up to those who believe in the merits of geography to reinvigorate it in American education by encouraging and promoting geographic teaching and literacy and supporting rigorous geography standards in schools.

This article is adapted from a paper, Geography at Harvard, Revisited, also by the author.

Important References:

McDougall, Walter A. Why Geography Matters... But Is So Little Learned. Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs. 47. no. 2 (2003): 217-233. pii/S0030438703000061 (Accessed November 26, 2012).
Pattison, William D. 1964. The Four Traditions of Geography. Journal of Geography Vol. 63 no. 5: 211-216. Allen/THE%20FOUR%20TRADITIONS%20OF%20GEOGRAPHY.pdf. (Accessed November 26, 2012).
Smith, Neil. 1987. Academic War Over the Field of Geography: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947-1951. Annals of the Association of American Geographers Vol. 77 no. 2 155-172.