Monday, 27 October 2008

Alex Standish makes the case for Geography for its own sake

At a recent conference of the Association of American Geographers in Boston I was intrigued by a session looking a common challenges faced by geography education in the US and UK. One of the first questions posed was “What is geography education for?” The panel of subject specialists each took their turn to answer the question: geography helps students to make a connection to other places and people around the world, it improves their conception of language, it helps them to relate to important contemporary issues like global warming, it improves their individual capabilities and it makes them better citizens. I was struck by how this discussion danced around from point to point without talking about the discipline of geography itself. So, I asked the panel, “Why do we need all these other reasons to account for geography’s place in the curriculum. Surely, the point of the subject is to learn geography because this has value itself?”

The response was quite remarkable. While I got some sympathetic support from some members of the audience, the panel seemed almost bemused by the suggestion. “But geography plays a role in all these other important areas of education today”, was the gist of their argument. It was as if they couldn’t see another reason for learning geography beyond instrumental aims. Never before has it been so clear to me that some educators no longer see subjects. As subjects like geography have been filled with extrinsic aims of global citizenship, environmental education, cultural tolerance, pre-vocational skills, key skills, etc, etc. over time these aims become the subject. Geographical topics might remain in the curriculum, but for some educators they have become a means to an aim which is extrinsic to the subject itself, rather than an end in and of itself.

Key to geography’s new-found instrumental purpose was the onset of globalization. Policy makers and some subject leaders looked to geography to provide young people with a sense of global connectivity, global perspectives or global citizenship (1). While it might sound like a great idea to national bias inherent to many twentieth century curricula with a truly cosmopolitan approach that cuts across cultural differences, unfortunately this is not what is being offered here. The ‘s’ at the end of global perspectives is all too significant. In general, developing global perspectives, or multiple perspectives, means respecting the contributions of other cultures, viewing one’s culture as an equal among others, and learning about global issues and viewing these from the perspective of others. In other words, its central purpose is not to educate students about the world, but rather to shape the values, attitudes and behaviours of young people. Therefore, global perspectives means respecting differences of viewpoint and culture, rather than evaluating and challenging them. This redefines education as a set of attitudes and values (such as acquiescence to difference) rather than an intellectual pursuit (the search for truth).

While young people should learn about the challenges and problems faced by different people around the globe, the problem with global issues in today’s geography curricula is that their aim is to promote a predetermined set of ethics rather than a genuine exploration of the issues facing humanity. Here, society’s problems have been relocated from the wider political realm to the internal psychology of students themselves. These so called ‘global ethics’ include respect for the environment, respect for cultural diversity, tolerance of other viewpoints, a concern for social justice and empathy towards those in need or different, many of which have become explicit curricula objectives. However, when socio-political values have been predetermined for young people this can only lead to values that are superficial and insincere. This personalised approach to learning about ‘global issues’ (what’s this got to do with me) inhibits the possibility for students to explore the real issues people face in their given locality, gain an understanding of their lives and maybe achieve genuine respect and empathy for them. Therefore, while the national liberal model of education sought to create (as well as influence) moral citizens, global citizenship undermines the moral self of young people, in that the state and professionals have taken responsibility for fundamental aspects of personality, such as values and emotional responses, away from the individual.

This transition in geography is what I examine in my recently published book. While there may well be extrinsic outcomes to learning geography, these will usually be an unintended consequence of the former, and should not be the aim of education. It is important for teachers to understand the difference between the two and where their professional responsibilities lie. The simple contention of this book that the job of geography teachers is geographical education, not political activism, saving the environment, building citizenship, training or something else. Geography is a discipline that deals with the science of space. Its foundational concepts include location, place, links between different places and regions. Through these concepts students learn to know where things are (location), understand different places (place), understand connections between different locations (links) and identify and comprehend spatial patterns (region). All of these are essential if young people are to grow up with a geographical perspective on the world.

Alex’s book, Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the moral case for Geography by Alex Standish, £21.99, is available from Amazon (UK)

The book will also be on sale at the Battle of Ideas festival, London on 1&2 November 2008.