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What happened to geography?

By Peter Curson - posted Wednesday, 11 October 2006

The strong push for history to be a compulsory subject for all Australian schoolchildren which has dominated the national media and resulted in a national history summit, is to be welcomed. After all, all Australian schoolchildren should know something about the historical processes which have produced and nurtured them.

But why has no one stood up for geography until relatively recently? Is it unimportant? Do our schoolchildren not need to know about the country in which they live and how it differs from other places in the world, and why? Are there no strong advocates for geography left in our universities, or if there are, do they not care about the parlous situation of the subject in our schools? Why have so few spoken out?

Is geography so moribund, that nobody cares? Are our academic geographers too busy with their research to comment to a wider audience? Unlike New Zealand, where geography is alive and well in most secondary schools and where geographical societies are very much a characteristic of many smaller towns as well as cities, in Australian schools, geography runs the risk of withering on the branch.


It is assaulted on all sides by untrained teachers and uninspiring syllabi as well as being under constant attack from so-called niche subjects, such as hospitality and tourism. Even in our universities it is now almost impossible to find a stand-alone geography department, the subject usually being combined with environmental studies or geology.

And like history, geography has fallen victim to the post modernists and the deconstructionists who speak a language largely incomprehensible to the average citizen and offer courses like, Feminist Geography, Cultural and Socio-Critical Perspectives on the City, and Deconstructing Space - A Marxist Perspective.

No matter what its methods, no matter what the popular current fad or fashion, the one everlasting and fundamental justification for geography as a subject in its own right is that it does something that no other subject does - in collecting, organising, evaluating, integrating, synthesing, explaining and disseminating information about different places - it is a subject for which all Australian citizens have always had, and always will have, a burning and overriding curiosity.

Consider the popularity of TV programs like The State of the Planet, The Living Planet and Planet Earth.

What is important is that geography is able to satisfy the curiosity of every schoolchild, every university student and every citizen. If it ever becomes divorced from the popular interest it will lose much of its justification and significance.

Geography, like history should be an indispensable part of every school syllabi in Australia. Every schoolchild should know something about where they live, what makes its distinctive and how it differs from other places?


Even at the most simplest level, do school students not need to know where places are, who lives in them, what sort of lives they lead, what sort of activities they engage in, and how such places are linked into a wider local, regional, national and international system?

Despite efforts to make geography more “scientific” or more “culturally relevant” by the same sort of post-modernists that have remodelled history, geography remains fundamentally what it has always been - a simple and straightforward discipline of diverse and catholic tastes. Nonetheless, it provides scope for the theoretician, the mathematically-minded, for those seeking cultural relevance, as well as those simply interested in what places are like and what human and physical processes produced them.

Surely all our schoolchildren need to appreciate and understand the geographical nature of the country they live in, as well as the variable nature of the parts of the earth’s surface, how places differ one from another and why, and how human intervention has changed the world, as well as to appreciate the linkages and inter-relationships between the human and the bio-physical environment and how this is played out in differing spatial or geographical locations or places?

It was recently claimed that “no country can learn to treasure and respect its most valued institutions … until they appreciate how they developed over time”. Presumably, one could legitimately add, “over geographical space” as well.

Geography, like history, should be taught to all Australian schoolchildren.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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