Two Schools of Geographic Thought

The Berkeley School and the Midwest School

Students reading map in class
Getty Images/Leon Harris

Throughout the years, the study and practice of geography have varied widely. During the early to mid-twentieth century, two "schools," or methods for studying geography, developed in the United States -- the Midwest School and the Berkeley School.

Berkeley School, or California School Thought Method

The Berkeley School was also sometimes called the "California School" and developed with the geography department at the University of California, Berkeley, and its department chair, Carl Sauer.

After coming to California from the Midwest, Sauer's ideas were shaped by the landscape and history around him. As a result, he trained his students to look at geography from a more theoretical point of view, thus founding the Berkeley School of geographic thought.

In addition to teaching the theories of different types of geography, the Berkeley School also had a human aspect to it that related people and their history to the shaping of the physical environment. To make this area of study stronger, Sauer aligned the UC Berkeley geography department with the university's history and anthropology departments.

The Berkeley School of thought also stayed largely isolated from other institutions because of its extreme western location and the difficulty and expense of travel within the U.S. at the time. In addition, as department chair, Sauer hired many of his former students who were already trained in the tradition, which helped to further reinforce it.

The Midwest School Thought Method

By contrast, the Midwest School was not centered on one university or individual. Instead, it was diffuse because of its location near other schools, therefore increasing the ability to share ideas between departments. Some of the main schools to practice the Midwest School were the Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, Pennsylvania State, and Michigan State.

Also unlike the Berkeley School, the Midwest School further developed the ideas from the earlier Chicago Tradition and taught its students a more practical and applied approach to the study of geography.

The Midwest School emphasized real-world problems and field work and had summer field-camps to put classroom learning into a real world context. Various regional land use surveys were also used as field work as the main goal of the Midwest School was to prepare students for governmental jobs relating to the field of geography.

Although the Midwest and Berkeley Schools were very different in their approach to the study of geography, both were important in the development of the discipline. Because of them, students were able to get different educations and study geography in varied ways. However, both practiced compelling forms of learning and helped to make geography at universities in America what it is today.