Do you ever find yourself watching the news or reading a paper and saying to yourself, ‘I don’t understand how this could happen’? If so, I’d suggest you may not have been paying attention in your Geography lessons.
The study of Geography is as old as the hills. Or at least as old as people looking at those hills and asked ‘why are there hills?’ or ‘how can we best get over those hills?’ or more likely ‘how can I use those hills to crush my enemies?’ The word ‘geography’ was given to us well over 2000 years ago by the Greek scholar Eratosthenes and literally means ‘writing the earth’. It has existed as an academic discipline ever since.
Reading the opening chapters of Bertrand Russell’s ‘History of Western Philosophy’ you are struck by how much Geography these early scholars were engaged in. This should not be surprising as Geography calls to something deep inside all of us. This is a need to find order in complex systems. A desire to understand the way the world works; whether those are physical processes or human ones. Show a group of children a picture of a river meander and the questions they ask are geographical: why does it bend? Is it safe to cross here? How fast does it flow? These are all questions that Geography will answer.
We see it too in many of the big issues facing us. If we want to understand the issues of migration we need a thorough knowledge of geography – and a knowledge from a range of disciplines within the subject. We need to understand the process of climate change and desertification, conflict and issues with borders, perception of place, development studies, pure locational knowledge. We can see it too with the questions this week following the Grenfell Tower disaster. It will be Geographers who will help us to understand how this was allowed to happen in one of the wealthiest areas in the U.K.
A study of geography gives you a superpower. Much likes Cyclops’ eye in The X-men, once you have it, you won’t be able to turn it off. It will change the way you see the world forever. You’ll stand at the top of Helvelyn and everything will slot into place. You’ll hear the arguments of politicians and of the front pages of the press and have the evidence to see through the smoke and mirrors.
Given the importance of Geography as an academic discipline, it seems criminal that it is so neglected. It’s coverage at Primary is often patchy and reliant on which teacher they happen to have and at secondary the compulsory KS3 stage is often squeezed in to two years. Many children will go into the world with just two years of education in the subject that will help them make sense of the seeming chaos they’ll encounter. We have to make those two years count and do everything in our power to keep them studying Geography through to 18 and preferably beyond. We desperately need a generation to have this superpower. To understand the complex systems they’ll be faced with.
Here’s a challenge for you. What superpower does your subject give? What could someone who has mastered your subject do that someone else could not?