Three Simple Ways to Realize You Do Know about Geography

Anne-Laure Fréant


If you are a human being who has been to school sometime between 1960 and 1990, and if you have never been following a college or university course in the field of geography, then you probably think that you suck at it.


Because you are not able to name the capital city of Serbia? You are not really sure that Serbia is in Europe? Or if it is a country, a region or something else? Well, it is nice to know about Serbia, but not knowing the name of its capital city does not mean you suck at geography. It just means you do not have an extra space in your brain to collect random factual data, which is actually a sign of intelligence and proof of a busy life.

We do not need the population to know by heart what is well documented already. We have this great thing called Google to remember conveniently facts and names for us. Not to mention more than 3,000 years of cartography & earth exploration back up documentation. So, we are pretty much covered about Belgrade already.

What is rarer, precious and unique is the unconscious knowledges people have about places they know. Places, when considered for what they are, which is a set of experiences, perceptions & stories (not a pin point on the map), mean something to people. So we naturally tend to remember about them.

Per definition, being alive means being somewhere. If you are not somewhere, you do not exist. Maybe you never paid attention to that somewhere, but consciously or not, it does has something to do with whom you are.

 Every single human being is and has a geographical history and a geographical signature on the planet.

1. General Place Description

Think about the place you were born in.

You certainly know this place. Is it a town? Is it a big city? In what region it is? What is the climate like? The flora & fauna? What are the landscapes like? What are the main economic activities? What jobs are people in your family doing? Are they all from this  place? Where do they come from? Have they come a long way for you to be born in that place? Is it the place you grew up in? Is that a place you still live in? Did you left? Why? Did you return? Why? How do you feel about that place now? How that feeling you have about this place has changed over time? Why?

You probably know answers for most of those questions, which means you are able to trace a general geographical portrait of the place that covers topography, climate, location, economical & cultural landscape, local history and environment. Even if you will not use the same words as an academic person to describe this place, you would be doing geography by connecting your perceptions and private experiences with collective dynamics and flows.

2. Distancing Perception and Spatial Connectivity

How long does it take for you to go from home to work? When you were a kid, were you taking a bus to go to school? Were you biking? Did your parents dropped you at school with their car? Did you walk? Did you had to walk through flat fields or the city? For how long? How long was your last flight to go on vacation? How long does it takes from your home to the closest supermarket? Don’t you feel “farther away” when lost in an unknown neighborhood of your city than when in the Caribbean resort you were for holidays?

By that we experiment movement ourselves every day, no matter at what scale, we implicitly know the surroundings (where things are, and especially, how far away they are). That distance perception is not always correct (it is hard to assess accurately how many miles a ride was), but our time perception is generally right.

1914 isochronic map showing travel times around the world by John G. Bartholomew, "An Atlas of Economic Geography".
1914 isochronic map showing travel times around the world by John G. Bartholomew, “An Atlas of Economic Geography”.

Some places are better connected to each other than others. It takes 3 hours with train to go from Paris to Marseilles, 9 hours driving, 1h30 flying. The little town 50km away from Paris is a 1h30 hour train ride because you are stuck in a suburban train that stops every 5 minutes.

I bet you know very well what part of the city or which cities you’ll never visit because you don’t have a car, because flying is too expensive, because you don’t want to walk for one hour. Because from where you are they are just too far away, either in terms of distance, time or cost.

3. Geographical Imaginations

In our very virtual world, we are constantly immersed in imaginary universes. Think about your favorite book, video games or movie. Start by asking yourself the same questions as in the first section of this article about your hometown. Then, compare this imaginative place with the real place you are living in.

A mental map of a neighborhood. Source: Caitlin Dempsey.
A mental map of a neighborhood. Source: Caitlin Dempsey.

Do you think they are just two versions of the same place in different universes? Are they that different from one another? What is different? What is it you like in this unofficial world? Why? If you project yourself in that virtual world, how would you live in it? What would it change in terms of dominant values, transportation mode, distances perceptions, cultural landscapes?

Even if those worlds do not exist, they are exactly like other places. They have their own dynamics, centers & fringes, set of beliefs and values. By being passionate about other worlds, you travel  and open your mind to other types of relationships with places. You do geography by questioning implicitly that relationship.

* * *

Did one single geography teacher (or person) ever asked you about those three things?

I bet not. Why? Well, science is still supposed to be about verifiable and repeatable process. Like a chemistry experience. So it’s been decided to teach only “scientific” things in schools, and each experience, like the place-individual relationship, are not part of it. But people are not like a chemistry experience. They won’t react the same way if you put them in a specific place at a “t” moment, and try again two weeks or five years later. There are no hard facts when it comes to understand exhaustively our world, made of changing human beings constantly interacting.

So please do not feel stupid when asked what is the capital city of Serbia, if you do not know the answer. In the contemporary world, it is a pretty stupid question if asked to assess someone’s understanding of the world’s geography.


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Anne-Laure Fréant

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