Photo by Kelsey Knight on Unsplash
Last year, I made the mistake, like many before me, of setting foot on the island of Lanzarote. In this barren volcanic wasteland nourished only by spilled jägerbombs, one is trapped among the wobbling, moist flesh of fellow Britons all exploring various advanced states of inebriation and skin cancer. The only excitement is in looking out to sea and imagining the bandits taking pot-shots at each other across the dunes in Western Sahara fifty miles to the east. As we wandered between bars, stepping over grown men quivering in reservoirs of their own vomit, I overheard a conversation that haunted me. ‘Una beer por favor’ yelled a heavily tattooed man, before turning to his friend, pondering for a split second and asking ‘Where even, like, are we right now?’
‘Mate we’re still at the Sunny Hunny Slappy Doo-da Bar. We been here since lunch.’
‘No I meant like, where actually is Lanzarote?’
His friend paused as though contemplating the epistemological impact of the Enlightenment.
‘Er. I think..I think it’s near Italy or summin. Like the Med innit.’
‘Oh okay. Thought so.’
But unbeknownst to either, Lanzarote wasn’t and still isn’t in the Med innit. It’s off the north west coast of Africa, near Morocco. And it’s about 1700 miles from Italy. Whilst these men tucked into their ninth pints of the evening, they were contentedly oblivious to the fact that they were standing on a rock on a completely different part of the planet from the one they assumed they ought to have been. Notions of geography and place were so low on their priorities that they had managed to part with a significant sum so as to get on a plane and spend the best part of an afternoon hurtling in a mysterious direction (surrounded by in-flight progress maps) before finally landing on a strip of ashy runway off the coast of Africa and being able to collectively conclude that, on balance, this probably wasn’t Trowbridge anymore.
I couldn’t fathom this. I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could be so complacent about being so profoundly lost on a planetary scale.
But geographical ignorance is far from unique to British holidaymakers. Most of us have seen the nominally hilarious but actually quite frightening videos of Americans who look like they’ve eaten their families try and point to North Korea on a map and, after mulling it over, prod hopefully at Northern Ireland. But intelligent people seem to stop giving a toss when the question comes to geography.
In fact, many will almost take pride in their geographical hopelessness, as though it is somehow endearing. ‘Oh, I just have an appaaaalling sense of direction’ they drawl. ‘I can barely even find my way to work.’ Sure, perhaps they can list all the African capitals as a sort of nightmarish party trick, but beyond plucking relatively arbitrary exotic names out of thin air, they’re stumped. A friend recently confided that, while she had been following the news of Hurricane Irma all week, she couldn’t actually point to Florida on a map. But that’s fine, because it’s geography, and we all know geography is a subject for losers.
It’s true. Millennials associate geography resolutely with the braindead. Today, its intellectual integrity can be reduced to two responses – the ceaselessly witty ‘Did you remember your colouring pencils’ and ‘You must really love ox-bow lakes.’ But why has it come to this? How has one of the most immediate and unlimited intellectual resources been societally dumbed down into a question of how passionate you are about longshore drift?
This is answered relatively easily: because the national geography curriculum largely consists of patronising drivel that obsesses over the formation of meanders and different types of beach retention rather than anything particularly consequential like international trade agreements or human trafficking. And even when rich and relevant topics are broached, they are horribly simplified and presented in the form of the arch enemy of intelligence – the infamous ‘case study.’ These are self-contained and immensely specific examples enclosed in artificial ‘case study’ boxes in textbooks that can be learned and then lazily deployed to answer ludicrously broad questions.
‘Using a case study you have learned, explain how eco-tourism can be a success and/or failure, or whatever you’ve learned really. We don’t want to hem you in, even if you’re wrong.’ 6 marks
For a start, why has any serious intellectual heft been granted to eco-tourism but not, say, the distribution of various branches of Islam? Secondly, this is simply asking you to dump the eco-tourism case study you learned into an answer box and be done with it.
Worse still, it highlights the crippling problem with this example-centric way of learning. You could literally make the whole thing up. The world is a big place and the examiner couldn’t possibly know whether what you’ve said about an Angolan bat hotel is true or not. It encourages all sorts of unempirical anecdotal approximations that are neither accurate nor academic. In my Geography GCSE I created a whole fictitious economy involving numerous Brazilian car manufacturers and I bet you could invent a small Latin American nation and no one would notice.
It is an approach that fosters indolence and rewards ignorance. Even if you do learn the case studies, all you’re left with is a fissiparous collection of useless information which you’ll forget as soon as you leave the exam hall. Tellingly, I would have done Geography as a degree but had so little confidence in the way it is taught that I opted instead to do History. My passion was reduced to contingency. And this is an unequivocal failing.
British schools needs to abandon this risible approach to the subject of Geography if the discipline is to approach the dignity it deserves. Questions must focus less on individual and seemingly random case studies and more on geopolitical and social theory. They must look beyond the well-trodden, comfortable remit of plate tectonics and coastal erosion to a wider selection of natural networks and processes. And the exams must be made more argumentative and rigorous, encouraging debate not recitation.
After all, this is a subject that is crucial to the understanding of almost every discipline there is. Societal development depends on place; models of empire, of core and periphery, of macroeconomics and globalisation and borders, migrants and conflict – these are meaningless, dislocated concepts without geography. The siege of Sarajevo is inexplicable unless you know it’s encircled by mountains, small rises in sea level banal until you consider which major conurbations are threatened. Geography is destiny, so why do we treat it like trivia?