A Peerless Pedagogue

Mark Jefferson crossed boundaries in the classroom and redrew them for post WWI Europe

Top photo: Professor Mark Jefferson’s geography class at Michigan State Normal College. Jefferson was head of the department and a renowned mapmaker.

Who was Mark Jefferson, anyway? What sort of person has a building named for him and, perhaps more impressive, remains its namesake after it was hugely expanded and renovated? The quiz answer is that he was the chair of Eastern’s geography department from 1901 to 1939, when the university was still known as Michigan State Normal College (MSNC), and arguably the most celebrated geographer of his time, for his research (more than 200 scholarly publications), his influence as a teacher, and his ever evolving concepts of what the work of the discipline itself should encompass. The Mark Jefferson building opened in 1967 and was dedicated with his name in 1969. When it was renovated and nearly doubled in size between 2010 and 2012, his name remained on the building. Even though it was a prodigious feat of mapmaking that gained him his greatest fame, he was about much more than maps. As he wrote late in his 86-year life, “Thinking is still the best thing I do.”

He was fluent in six languages by the time he was 20, and could hold his own in another three; in fact, his first life goal was to be a professor of modern languages. He worked for six years as an assistant astronomer in Argentina’s national observatory before earning his first degree, in astronomy, from Boston University. He played the clarinet, loved the theater, read voraciously (including detective novels as well as scholarly material), and was responsible for a host of teaching innovations, even though he claimed he never felt he had much of an aptitude for it. One of his former students, who later taught for years in the MSNC geography department, described him this way: “Mark Jefferson did not teach geography as straight facts. He knew literature, art, music, science, math, and the social sciences, and his courses were truly integrated and fused courses.” Or, as one of the hosts of 2019’s “Mark Jefferson at Versailles” symposium at Eastern put it, he was interdisciplinary before the term was coined. A look at some of the major sponsors of that event underscores the point: the Departments of Geography and Geology, History and Philosophy, and Political Science, and the College of Arts & Sciences.

Mapmaker to the world

The symposium marked the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Peace Conference, the meeting of world leaders in Paris to finalize peace terms after the end of hostilities in World War I on November 11, 1918. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appointed Jefferson chief cartographer—a deceptively modest title for an immensely crucial job – for the American delegation. Wilson was convinced that the conference presented a golden opportunity to reshape Europe, where almost all of the war had been fought, on “scientific” principles, drawing national boundaries on the basis of culture, commerce and ethnicity rather than political considerations and thus, in his view, erasing the causes of such a massive conflagration. He was, to say the least, coming from a different place than his fellow national leaders: the only academic ever to win the White House, Wilson was still president of Princeton University a little more than two years before he was first elected in 1912. This made the quality of the maps produced in Paris vital to the realization of his goals, and that was Jefferson’s responsibility. Technically, he reported to Isaiah Bowman, a former student of his whose title was chief territorial specialist. More of an explorer than a scholar, Bowman was executive director of the American Geographical Society, later became president of Johns Hopkins University, and was one of Wilson’s closest advisers.

Three other MSNC alumni, two of whom had also been Jefferson’s students, were engaged in the peace negotiations, but none of these accomplished geographers was available to him for help in the actual work he was doing. Instead, he supervised a staff of 25 members of the military who had little or no training in mapmaking, so he had to do some more teaching even as he and his team produced as many as 500 maps a week. There was, of course, no Google, no Wikipedia, no digitized archives, so if, say, one of the Allied diplomats wanted to know what the boundaries of a country had been a century before, it was up to Jefferson et al to produce a map that showed them. As Jeremy Crampton, a professor of urban data analysis at England’s Newcastle University and one of the symposium presenters, pointed out, a Romanian language map alone took 85 hours to draw. How many maps did Jefferson and his team eventually compile, catalogue and file? So many of them have been lost or scattered that even estimates of the symposium presenters varied widely. It could have been as many as 5,000. There were language maps, boundary maps, port maps, ethnographic maps, religion maps, city maps, coal maps, cereal maps, relief maps, political maps, and outline maps, and that doesn’t exhaust the list. “Territorial decisions would at least be taken in a minimum of ignorance,” wrote Geoffrey J. Martin, Jefferson’s biographer. “Men’s similarities and differences—the very stuff of war—would be noted. If justice were not meted out, it was not for lack of cartographic data, but from a lack of ability to define justice.”

Over the years, Jefferson taught 62 different courses and some 15,000 students. Because of his work, Michigan Normal College became known as “The Nursery of American Geographers.”

No justice, no peace

Twelve new states were created, with 3,000 miles of new borders, but, as the world now knows, that wasn’t enough to create justice. One of the most significant blunders was excluding the Germans from the conference until a treaty that saddled them with massive reparations and loss of territory was ready to be signed. The “humiliation” and “betrayal” his country suffered at Versailles was a rallying cry of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, and he used the recovery of “stolen” lands as a pretext for invading Poland in 1939, which ignited World War II.

Jefferson was as patriotic as they come, and had willingly devoted himself not only to the conference but also to the American Inquiry, a months-long operation to collect data for the participants that preceded it (the U.S. didn’t have a formal intelligence agency until after World War II). But he was also shrewd and perceptive, and he could see the writing on the wall as clearly as the writing on the maps. Moreover, between the Inquiry and the conference, he had been away from his home and family for the better part of two and a half years, and was loath to prolong their separation in the service of what seemed increasingly to be a fool’s errand. As Jesse Kauffman, Associate Professor and Section Chair of History at Eastern, said at the symposium, “A cloud of catastrophe and failure hangs over the settlements reached at the Paris Peace Conference.” After six months at the conference, and before any treaties were signed, Jefferson went home. It was clear to him that the fruits of his Herculean labors would be ignored, except when they were politically convenient, and that the map of Europe the negotiators eventually settled on would lead straight to the next war. Almost 30 years later, he wrote to himself, in a note bitterly entitled “A Song to Victory,” that “the blood of the First World War was not well shed, the treasure was not well spent, men paid the price but did not get what they paid for ... an end of war and an advance of civilization.” Jefferson never stopped striving toward both those ends, but through teaching, research, public speaking and avid participation in civic affairs, rather than political activity. It was thoroughly in character for him that, even though he never published anything about the peace conference and his role in it, he soon thereafter offered a course at the Normal drawn from his experiences, entitled “The New World,” and also presented an evening series of lectures about the war and the conference to faculty and townsfolk. He was constantly devising new courses, teaching more than 60 over his 38 years at Michigan Normal, and his methods, as familiar as they are now, were as innovative as his subject matter: using slides to illustrate his presentations (thousands of them are preserved in the EMU Archives), and emphasizing field work (radical at a time when most professors just lectured) and hands-on experience (insisting, for example, that students learn how to draw maps for themselves). So many of his students went on to leading roles in the discipline that MSNC was dubbed the “Nursery of American Geography.”

People and places

His mind itself was innovative. He endlessly questioned what geography was, and what it was good for. “For Jefferson, the study of the earth devoid of the study of human life was not geography,” wrote his biographer. “When he offered geography at the Normal in 1901, he insisted on the study of the human element, and so brought himself into opposition with the geographic tradition of that time. His effort to reshape geography and claim for it a human field in addition to explanatory landform study … was bold.” By 1911, Jefferson was using data such as a country’s schools, patents, cities, communications, railroad freight, foreign commerce, telegraph, telephones, automobiles, art galleries, and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals to compile its “culture index,” an indication of the degree of cultural attainment it had achieved. It sounds like a prototype for today’s ubiquitous “livability” ratings. At MSNC’s summer school of 1931, when he was 68, Jefferson offered his first course concerned solely with population distribution. Called “Geography of Cities,” it was one of the earliest courses in urban geography ever offered on a U.S. university campus. It also introduced the concept of the suburb as a distinct population entity. Seventy years after his death and a century after his most public performance, his life and work still engage scholars. The presenters at the symposium included veteran hands like Crampton, Kauffman, EMU Archivist Alexis Marks Braun and George Washington University teacher Wesley Reisser, as well as nascent scholars like recent Eastern alums Cassie Thayer and Dustin Elliott, both of whom made extensive use of the EMU Archives in writing their papers. Thayer had an internship in the Archives and curated a display about Jefferson. Elliott checked him out at Braun’s suggestion and wound up writing a Senior Seminar paper on the origins of his cosmopolitan worldviews. “He’s one of the more fascinating individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning about,” he told the audience. Graduate student Luis Pena wasn’t a presenter, but he, too, had an eye-opening encounter with Jefferson when he investigated the feasibility of creating state historical markers for his namesake building and his longtime home on Normal Street for a class assignment. “I had heard about his work with the peace conference,” says Pena, “but beyond that I had no clue who he was.” And now? “I think he was a great man, and a great academic and intellectual.” In celebration of the centennial of the conference, the EMU College of Arts and Sciences created the Mark Jefferson Student Travel Fund to support travel by undergraduate students. That would probably have pleased him even more than having a building named in his honor. He was, after all, a peerless pedagogue, and his classroom was the world.

By Jeff Mortimer

(Photos courtesy of University Archives)