The science of place, one that investigates the surface of the Earth and the things on it, attempting to explain:
- Where things are.
- Why they are where they are.
- How they affect the things around them, because of where they are.
It is through studying geography that we see the Earth become the World.
Location -> Climate -> Environment -> Biodiversity -> Economic Opportunity -> Politics
-> Geology -> Land form -> Agriculture -> Settlement -> Culture
-> Soils -> History
This may seem overly broad, but geography is an extremely broad science (it covers the Earth, after all). It is one of the few disciplines that is both a physical science and a social science. Geography touches on most other fields of human knowledge, from mathematics to culture, to the extent that many of its subdisciplines are simply called by the name of another major discipline with "geography" tacked on. Geography plays a role in explaining nearly all areas of human activity.
Notice that I do not mention the memorizing of long lists of place names. If a place teaches you something about the world, you'll remember its name.
An (extremely) brief history of Geography
From the earliest times, people have sought to understand the world around them. For millenia, knowing where the herds would move next, or the best places to gather fruits and grains, was a key to survival. Humanity's essential nomadic nature has also expressed itself in early trade routes; it was an advantage to know where the people who had the things you wanted were, and where the people who wanted the things you had were.
Although the first real geography experiment was probably Eratosthenes' measuring the circumference of the Earth, through all this time, geography was purely descriptive. It was important to know things were, but not necessarily so important to understand why they were there. To the Greeks and Romans, "geography" mostly meant compiling gazeteers, the best-known of which were produced by Claudius Ptolemy and Strabo.
During the Middle Ages, European knowledge of the world was regressed into a religious iconography which reinforced the power structures of the time. The Chinese, with an empire to manage, understood their land much better. As with most other classical fields of knowledge, Islamic scholars preserved geography through this period. The legendary mathemetician and geographer Al-Khwarizmi expanded on Ptolemy's gazeteer, and this is what was introduced back into the West during the Renaissance. Knowledge of far-away places inspired some people to go look for them, and the Age of Discovery (and Colonialism, and Slavery) resulted.
Exploration and exploitation
All of this changed during the Age of Discovery/Colonialism. Europeans ran across the New World because of geographical ignorance, but the little knowledge of the world they did have gave them the power to conquer it. Between episodes of abusing native peoples, the explorers and conquerors occasionally remarked on how things were different from their homes. Cartography advanced during this period as well, as colonial powers sought to map their new empires. Sea monsters used to fill in the empty spaces on maps were a nice touch.
Upon occasion, late 18th and early 19th century naturalists would pause in their collecting to remark on how what they collected varied from place to place, and to speculate on why that was. One of the most perceptive was Charles Darwin, who saw how the isolation of the Galapagos Islands created ecological niches that the creatures who drifted there evolved to fill. Alexander von Humboldt's journey through the Americas caused him to write about many topics of vegetation geography and geomorphology. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark described the native peoples they encountered in their expeditions. The notes John Wesley Powell took while he and his men shot the Grand Canyon in 1863 produced a vivid portrait of how and why the canyon got there.
The first thematic maps also appeared in the early 19th century, turning cartography into a tool for explanation. Doctor John Snow's famous map of cholera deaths in London may be the first time a map was used to solve a public health problem. In 1869, Charles Joseph Minard produced a map illustrating Napoleon's Grande Armee evaporating as it marched across Russia during the fall and winter of 1812.
Geography began to develop as an academic discipline from geology departments in the mid-19th century. The first acadmic geography chairs were endowed in 1874 by Kaiser Wilhelm I for all Prussian universities. In America, William Morris Davis, inspired by Charles Darwin, began laying out his theories of geomorphological processes. In the 1890s Russian geographer Count Vladimir Köppen devised the very first soil classification system, from which we get to use wonderful words such as podzol and chernozem.
The early 20th century saw the birth of the first glimmerings of geography's vast potential to explain humanity: the notion that cultures are shaped by the natural environments in which they develop, environments that ultimately derive from their locations. However, this "environmental determinism" became warped, pressed into serving the national and racial superiority theories prevalent in some cultures at the time.
Meanwhile, Carl O. Sauer began a movement transformed American academic geography. Sauer, based at the University of California, Berkeley, stressed "historical geography", that is, understanding an entire landscape, and all of its influences throughout history. Such in-depth knowledge required geographers to specialize in particular regions of the world. Unfortunately, this was carried out to an absurd degree. One of the stories of this time tells of one student writing his Master's thesis on the soils of a particular county in Michigan, with his classmates writing theirs on the soils of neighboring counties.
At the same time, geography departments embarked on a vast campaign of data collection and classification. All this raw data had a vast potential to give a deep understanding of the American landscape, but the actual explaining languished.
By the 1950's, this mindlessness had taken over the field to such an extent that university administrators began to question whether geography was even meaningful as an academic discipline. One by one, the Ivy League schools wiped out their geography programs (although the Business School's dislike of a certain homosexual department chair may have played a part in Harvard's decision).
The universities that did this missed out on a great transformation in the discipline, as the spread of computers made it possible to analyze the vast quantities of data that had been collected. Led mostly by Midwestern public universities, a renaissance of geographic analysis emerged. In the meantime, something resembling the historical geography of Sauer began to reappear at the universities that had smashed it, under the name "Regional Science".
Unfortunately, the lack of advocacy for geographic education at the highest levels of academia percolated down to secondary and elementary education. At the same time, the political and military domination by the United States in the 1950's and 1960's eroded the place of geographic knowledge in many Americans' value systems. It simply became less important in some people's minds to undertand the world around them. As a result, elementary schools across the country cut out geography altogether, or watered it down into "social studies". As is plain to see, the world is still suffering from it.
The 1960's and 1970's saw the emergence of new geographic and carogtaphic techniques involving computers. Geographic Information Systems really took off in the 1980's as computers became more affordable. For the first time, geography majors could make good money outside academia doing something they found interesting. But it left the old-time regional specialists wondering what had happened to their science. Mailing lists in the early 1990's were full of flame wars over the topic "Is GIS Science?" (The answer is, It depends on what you mean.) Today, GIS is a ubiquitous tool of management and governance.
As the world's population skyrocketed in the last half of the 20th Century, it has become more and more important to understand all aspects of geography. If you're going to be constantly bumping into elbows, it behooves you to understand where the elbows are, and how they got there.