Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review and Author Interview: Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography

 Geography has a long history but many consider Immanuel Kant giving the field its modern birth by defining it as the spatial science in the late 1700s.  Others reintroduced regional studies, incorporating spatial science, and thus tied geography with the scientific expansion of the nineteenth century.  The idea of liberal education further aided geography by removing limits put on it by religious and nationalistic pressures.  By the end of the 1800s geography was on a winning streak and many barriers to geographic education were removed.  However, one hundred years later the discipline is a shadow of its former self with many geographers unable to define the field and many schools teaching "global perspectives" and moral-driven world issues in a subject that calls itself geography but lacks any spatial reasoning.

Enter Dr. Alex Standish, who is a geographer who has researched how the field has developed since the days of the Ancient Greeks.  He has dedicated his career to studying how geography has been taught both past and present, and he does not like what he sees.  Standish sees the change in geography education from the objective spatial science/regional studies subject to one of global perspectives and moral-driven education as greatly damaging not only to geography but education and students as well.  Simple things like distance decay are not being taught while biased studies, half-truths, and outright lies about climate change, cultural conflicts, and globalization are being taught with students being exposed to only one side of the story (Note:  The book is not denying climate change or other important issues, just pointing out that both sides are not being fairly presented and the "moral" side is presented as dogma).  Not only is this not geography but it retards students ability to learn to think for themselves.  The outcome is the denial of free thinking, students who lack basic geographic skills like spatial reasoning, and a subject that cannot defend its own existence.  (See Standish's blog post on his AAG panel session for more on the last point)

Standish's work is summed up in his book Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography.  Standish describes the evolution of geography from ancient times through the religious-imperial driven ages and the "golden era" of liberal education up to today's moral-driven "global perspectives" interpretation of the field.  He does a good job showing how a drive to influence students' thinking has hijacked geography and made it an agenda-driven subject that while focusing on global issues ignores general topics like spatialness and regional studies.

Regardless if one thinks prepackaged morals should be a part of education it does seem like the shift in geography, which started to gain strength in the 1970s, has had a large impact on the subject.  American students geographic skills are laughable despite concentrated efforts by forces like National Geographic as Catholicgauzette has shown.

The book is a good read but it is written at an academic level.  The lay reader may want to avoid the book while those use to reading at a college-reading level may enjoy such a weighty book.

I was able to interview Dr. Standish to ask him a few questions about the book and his thoughts. 

Geographic Travels: Your book frequently discusses how geography textbooks and how they have adopted many bias and non-geographic themes.  What would be included if you could make your own Introduction to Geography textbook?

Dr. Standish:  At an introductory level pupils need to learn both regional and thematic geography. Courses can combine the two approaches or they can study both separately. What is included depends upon the age of the children. At a young age, children need to learn to interpret their world spatially, looking at and making basic plans and maps. It works well to start with a local area and expand scales out from there. Later they need to learn about the different types of countries and cultures of the world. Phil Gersmehl has identified four concepts that are foundational to the study of geography: location, place/conditions, links between places, and regions. Using these, teachers should introduce pupils to the themes of geography including landforms, weather and climate, the biosphere, resources, population, settlements/urbanization, cultural geography, political geography, and economic geography. A great introductory text at college level is an Introduction to Geography: People, Places and Environments by Bergman and Renwick.
Geographic Travels:  Your book has been reviewed in several academic geography publications and received some negative reviews because your reviewers believe that your main point, that geography's shift away from liberal education to moralism, is not a bad thing.  Do you have any response to these reviewers?  (Note: The book has just received a shining review from the new president of NCGE, soon to appear in the Journal of Geography.)

Dr. Standish: It is understandable some welcome the shift to moralism in the curriculum, as many of these people have lost faith in knowledge as a pathway to understanding. Seeking an alternative rationale for schooling, they have replaced education with political or therapeutic goals. In practice, this means teaching values, attitudes, and behaviors, such as empathy or affirmation, in place of knowledge as an end of education. While a good education will stimulate all sorts of emotions and make one rethink one's values, these are outcomes of education, not its aim. The inclusion of specific values as learning objectives is decidedly illiberal and inhibts freedom of thought. As such, it is anti-educational. A good reference here is Ecclestone and Hayes, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.

Geographic Travels:  There have been many efforts to improve geographic literacy in the last few decades.  However, as studies have shown and this blog has reported, the impact of these efforts has been minimal at best.   Do you feel, and if so how strongly is, the reason for such low geographic literacy because of the abandonment of geography in exchange for the moralistic geography-called subject currently being taught in schools?

Dr. Standish:  The US has had a particular problem with geography being burred in the social studies for almost a century. With America's increased international roll and discussion of globalization, geography's place in schools has seen some modest improvement. However, geographers need to be careful not to piggyback on trendy educational fads like global citizenship, which in many instances are tied to moralistic agendas. We are far better off building a case for geography through its intellectual qualities, its ability to help us make sense of our world. At the end of the day, clarity of understanding is the reward geography brings to pupils, whereas many see through the patronising approach that informs the moralizing in the curriculum.

Geographic Travels: Do you see any major pushes to bring back liberal education-model geography or will the global perspectives-version continue to dominate the education system?

Dr. Standish:  The key to resuscitating geography, and education more generally, is to focus the debate on the meaning and purpose of education. Everyone knows that schools have a problem, but they only look for technical or managerial fixes. Groups such as the Institute of Ideas Education Forum (http://www.instituteofideas.com/events/educationforum.html) or Common Core (http://www.commoncore.org/index.php) are trying to stimulate discussion about the content of education and what it is for. Only by challenging the demoralization of geography and other subjects in this way can we begin to stimulate young people and offer them the kind of education they deserve.


Rybu said...

Excellent interview and research! While the book can be viewed as a call to arms, it's easy for me to see it as "preaching to the choir".

Either way, it remains incumbent on us to spread the word!

Education Interview Questions said...

This wonderful interview..seems the best answers provided..can you place a link where i can download the book? thanks

Catholicgauze said...

Education Interview Questions,
The book is available for sale at all major bookstores.