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There are Five Themes of Geography. We Need a Sixth.

Updated: Jul 15, 2019


“The Mississippi is the largest river in the United States and Canada in terms of both water volume and drainage area. It runs 2,348 miles (3,778 km) from its source near the border of the United States and Canada to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico.”
—Anonymous textbook writer, Glencoe World Geography: A Physical and Cultural Approach

Does this want you to make a trip and see the mighty river? To experience, firsthand, the power and glory of Ol’ Man River, The Big Muddy, Old Blue, Moon River, The Gathering of Waters?


Of course it doesn't. Yet the paragraph is factual, straightforward, and imparts critical knowledge.


It is also typical—typical of a child’s first learning about one of the great geographic wonders of the world.


From this basic knowledge, students will usually be taught to consider the river in the terms of the vaunted “Five Themes of Geography.” The five themes were adopted by the Association of American Geographers in 1984. They were published by the Association of American Geographers and the National Council for Geographic Education in Guidelines for Geographic Education, Elementary, and Secondary Schools. The five themes are:

  • Location (absolute and relative)

  • Place (toponym, site, situation, population, etc.)

  • Human-Environment Interaction (dependency, adaptation, modification)

  • Movement (of people, goods, and ideas)

  • Region (distinct and defined area)

All of these are useful and sound ways to interpret the Mississippi River. Together, the themes provide a complete picture of the river.


Well, almost.


I say “almost” because the Five Themes fail to incorporate what is arguably the most important, essential, and human way to interpret the river, or any other thing geographical.


It’s well-nigh impossible to write about the Mississippi without reference to Mark Twain (1835-1910), who knew the river as well as anyone. And it is Twain who points us to what I will call the Sixth Theme of Geography.


Twain writes of the Mississippi:

“A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings that were as many-tinted as an opal….
“There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances, and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it every passing moment with new marvels of coloring.
“I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me and I had never seen anything like this at home.”
—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Twain obviously isn’t viewing the Mississippi through one of the Five Themes of Geography. He is viewing it as a human experiencing, to choose the fundamental word, beauty.


Twain, through his gifted imagery, paints the scene. More important, he strives to express how the scene affects him. His choice of words: graceful, enriching, marvels, bewitched, speechless, rapture; a world “new to me.”


Is there a word that captures all that Twain felt? Perhaps not. I suggest the closest may be sublimity, meaning the state or quality of being sublime, Sublime, from the Latin sublimis, refers to that which is "uplifted, high, borne aloft, lofty, exalted, eminent, distinguished.” Something sublime is of such excellence, grandeur and beauty as to inspire awe. And awe is reverential respect combined with wonder, and perhaps fear. It is transcendent.


Twain writes beautifully of the sublimity of the Mississippi, but his awe is replaced by a heartbreaking loss:

“Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out the majestic river! "

What was sublime has become workaday:

“[A] day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then…I…looked upon it without rapture: ‘This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling “boils” show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there….'”

Must technical knowledge of geography replace our children's natural wonder of the beauty of Earth? I think it might, if we limit ourselves, and our kids, to the Five Themes of Geography.


I therefore propose a Sixth Theme of Geography:

  • Sublimity (beauty and awe)

Yes, let's teach the Little Ones that the Mississippi River "is the largest river in the United States and Canada in terms of both water volume and drainage area."


But let's also encourage them to be bewitched, and drink it in "in a speechless wonder," and never lose their sense of "the grace, the beauty, the poetry" of their world.

Sunflower Education

Austin, Texas USA

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