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

Baber gathering fossils at Mazon Creek, Illinois, 1895, during the first field class at the University of Chicago to which women were admitted. Photo from University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. Background by NASA / Apollo 17)

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 biographical 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.

A lifelong Midwesterner, Baber was born in Kansas Township, Illinois. Zonia’s hometown did not offer education beyond elementary school, so she ended up moving 130 miles away to Paris, Illinois to live with her uncle to attend high school. After high school, she attended what was known as a “Normal School”—an affordable alternative to college, which to a large extent trained women to become teachers. These schools embraced geography, and helped to produce an increasingly large, specialized group of female geography teachers.

Today, however, these women geographers have been largely forgotten. “By the 1920s, normal schools started to be called state teachers colleges,” says Monk. “And by the 1950s, they were becoming state universities. In the process of gaining status, they stopped hiring and promoting the women who had historically been on the faculty of those institutions and hired men instead.” Soon, women were being pushed out of positions that they once held in large numbers. Histories of geography reflect this erasure of women’s work—like Baber’s—by focusing mainly on the men who held university positions. 

The Woman Who Transformed How We Teach Geography
A map showing the distribution of peace monuments, created by Baber for the Peace Symbols Committee of the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Records, Swarthmore College Peace Collection

At the Cook County Normal School of Chicago, Baber struck up a professional relationship with the principal, Francis Wayland Parker. Parker was a geography writer himself, and shared Baber’s progressive beliefs about teaching and geography education. And after Baber graduated, Parker hired her as the head of the Department of Geography at the school in 1891. While heading the geography department at the normal school, Baber also attended classes in geography and geology at the University of Chicago and was even part of the first geology class that allowed women in the field in 1895.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Baber formalized her progressive teaching methods and activist approach to geography that would set her apart from other contemporary geographers. In 1898, she founded the Chicago Geographic Society, which unlike other professional organizations prioritized women speakers at meeting and was open to the community. And in 1901, three years before she officially earned her bachelor’s degree, Baber was named an Associate Professor of the Teaching of Geography and Geology in the Department of Education—not geography.

Baber’s approach to education was holistic: for her, what seemed like disparate branches of knowledge were, in fact, interdependent and should be taught as such starting in elementary school. “The understanding of geographic facts necessitates a knowledge of science, mathematics, and history, and demands expression in reading, writing, modeling, drawing, painting, and making,” she wrote in the journal Elementary School Teacher. Baber believed that three main pedagogical elements could accomplish this interdisciplinary education, which she laid out in a 1904 article “The Scope of Geography.”

First, she argued that schools needed to get children out of the classroom and outside in their environments. Textbooks, while useful, could not teach geography students to see beyond their own immediate environment and experience; field trips, especially in economically-disadvantaged school districts, would facilitate a higher intellectual return. Baber argued that “[t]he measure of progress in teaching geography is nowhere more strongly marked than in the use of fieldwork.” When she would later argue in support of preserving the sand dunes, she built her case from the standpoint of children’s education in geography fieldwork.

When field trips were not possible, she maintained that students needed a hands-on, personal experience with the science to help them connect to the subject matter on a more personal level, which could be accomplished through lab work. Her ideas of how to achieve this were often creative: In 1896, Baber patented a desk specifically suited for geography and its “kindred sciences” that they may be taught “objectively by advanced methods.” The desk contained a receptacle for clay, a water well and a pan for sand, which were meant to give students the means to create their own miniature landscapes.

The third key element of geography education was map-making. This, to Baber, meant teaching students to understand that maps contain symbols that correspond to reality, to real places and real people. The teacher’s failure to give maps context was she wrote, “little short of a pedagogic crime.” Instead of copying maps, students should be required to create their own method for mapping while implementing accepted conventions of hatch lines, shading, and color schemes. This, she writes, would force students to “interpret the map into terms of reality.”

The Woman Who Transformed How We Teach Geography
From Baber’s patent application for a special desk for geography students, filed in 1896. USPTO

Baber herself had travelled the world. Between 1899 and 1900, she visited Asia, the Pacific Islands, Europe, and the Middle East, and returned with a radically new outlook on the field: She wanted to use geography as a means to connect the world, rather than to dominate it.

In an article in The Course of Study (now The Elementary School Journal), co-authored with Wallace W. Atwood, Baber encourages teachers to integrate international correspondence with students of foreign countries into the geography classroom. A woman openly critiquing imperialism in the pages of a professional journal was not a common occurrence.  Yet in the article, Baber articulated how European colonizers took the geography and advanced cartography of indigenous people and used the information they provided to colonize them. In the case of the Peruvians, she wrote, “[t]hey possessed relief and political maps of their country which were of great value to their destroyers.”

These progressive attitudes would also color her work outside of education. In 1925, as chairman of the Pan-American committee for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she helped investigate the conditions in Haiti under U.S. military occupation at the request of Haitians, and co-authored a report calling for the complete end of US military presence in the country. A year later, she represented the women of Puerto Rico in the expansion of suffrage to the territory. She was elected a member of the Society of Women Geographers in 1927, and in 1948, was awarded the Gold Medal for lifetime achievement by the organization she founded 40 years before, the Chicago Geographic Society.

Perhaps the best example of Baber’s worldview is evident in her call for sharing knowledge and perspectives among students of geography, rather than allowing them to divide. Corresponding with students of other countries, she wrote in The Scope of Geography, not only improves academic knowledge but “leads to the development of a fraternal attitude toward all peoples—a world of sympathy—which is one of the highest aims of our teaching.”

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