Topophilia and Education for Placefulness

51gSitKJFSL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_Geographer Alastair Bonnet’s recent work Off The Map: Feral places and what they tell us about the world introduced me to a new term: “topophilia.” I am familiar with E.O. Wilson’s notion of “biophilia“– that there is an innate relationship between human beings and the “more-than-human-world” but I had not considered the related idea of “topophilia” which might best be described as a strong sense of place.

Sense of place has received a fair amount of attention in education circles of late particularly with the rise of place-based education, community-based research and learning, and a re-focusing on the “local” within sustainability and environmental discourses. Yet there remains much work to be done in schools (K-16) toward education for “topophilia.”

I am currently leading a semester study abroad program in New Zealand. As part of our studies, we have spent time with, and learned from, the local Māori iwi (tribe) here in Whanganui where we are based. To the Te Atihaunui people of the Whanganui, their entire worldview centers on their mountain and their river. Their ancestral genealogy (or whakapapa) begins with the creation story and runs down, uninterrupted, to the present day. Importantly, it includes the more-than-human-world. This is not metaphor to them. To the Te Atihaunui, the river is their grandmother. They know as much about her as they do any other member of their family. The meaning and significance of the places and stories associated with the river are passed down through the generations– it is inextricably woven into their identity as individuals and as a tribe. It forms their “kaupapa” or moral values.

It seems to me that in our modern, Western world (particularly in the States), we have lost some of the more powerful and animating aspects of “topophilia.” More than just a simplistic and nostalgic yearning for les temps perdu or a Romantic delusion of the noble savage, true topophilia is, like biophilia, part of our human experience and can be tapped into to create better relationships– both amongst human communities and between the human and more-than-human world.

For the Māori of Whanganui, topophilia is a very real quality to their everyday lived modern experience of the world. So much so that they have fought hard for, and recently won, designated legal status and protection for their river as a living entity. What would it look like if our own rivers, mountains, forests, and more-than-human places were seen not simply as a background for the human drama unfolding on center stage but as fellow actors and family members? One intriguing idea I recently learned about was the idea of “human libraries.” How might we use the idea of human libraries and oral history projects to link cultural and natural sense of place? How might we facilitate topophilia through our informal public spaces like libraries in creative and dynamic ways?

Bonnet’s notes: “Yet while those who care about place have a lot to be troubled about, it would be a shame if this discussion was limited to nostalgic laments… the world is still full of unexpected places that have the power to delight and, sometimes, appall but always intrigue. These unruly places provoke us and hence force us to think about the neglected but fundamental role of place in our lives.” And we do neglect our places. Our educational systems seem hell-bent to continue such “topophobia.” Whether it is the overblown fetish on “seat-time” and standardized curriculum in our elementary schools, our forgotten study of natural history and the field sciences in middle and high schools, or our “universities of nowhere” in higher education, it seems more timely than ever to re-kindle an emphasis on place for all its complexity and possibility (for more on this in higher education, see Eric Zencey’s provocative essay “The Rootless Professors”).

Topophilia and placefulness deserve a “place” in our schools. To neglect place as a dynamic shaping force in our lives is to neglect, in the end, our own humanity.

For more information on concrete ways to create more topophilia in K-12 schools:

For more information on PBL in higher education:

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