Geography is all around us. Where you live and work, why you go where you do to shop or have fun, how you move about, and what public and private spaces mean to you can be thought about geographically. So can globalisation, climate change, landforms, macroeconomics and events happening on the other side of the Earth. As can the view out the window. Being able to think geographically is an important skill; it helps us to make sense of our world.
The world is far from perfect, and these imperfections matter. Why places are different, the way people interact with their environment and with each other, and what places mean to different groups all constitute geography. Geography is the world, and knowing the world is important.
Most of us are able to think about our environments critically, to some extent, and understand something about how they work. Many people learnt geography at school years ago, where maps were drawn (and dreaded), trivial facts about place names were memorised and human-environment interactions were studied in abstracted and quantitative terms. That’s boring geography. Real geography is much more than this. It opens up skills and techniques that provide new ways of thinking not only about places, landscapes and environments, but also about people, societies and policies.
Enhancing the geographic education of Australia is important if we are to have an innovative and productive future. It is important for all of us to know our own place, as well as the place of our towns, communities and our nation, in the bigger picture. Knowing how and why things happen, and being able to evaluate the effects of natural and human processes on different places and environments, leads to better policies and a better recognition of our strengths. Australia needs a Geographic revolution to ensure our economy is successful, our cities and regions are sustainable, and our government policies are both efficient and equitable.
This article presents my arguments in favour of fostering a more geographically aware Australia. This must start at the school level.
What is geography?
Essentially, geography is the study of how people interact with their environments - which include the natural, geophysical, biophysical, ecological, social, cultural, political and intellectual environments. Geography is not just about being able to read maps or identify landforms. It is not a subject, discipline or set of facts, but a way of thinking critically about the real world and understanding the varied processes and outcomes within it.
Geography involves an awareness of different places and people, and an understanding of the relationships between them. It is the where and the where not, and also the how, the why and the why not. Many have called geography an academic field without boundaries, or the interdisciplinary discipline. As a field of research, it brings together theories and techniques of other natural and social sciences. By linking together the natural world and the people and societies within it, geography spans the physical and the social sciences, building a bridge between them that allows both to be reached.
Perhaps the two fundamental concepts at the heart of geography are those of space and scale. Whatever we focus on - economic development, labour markets, environmental change, political identifications, migration, housing - there are always differences across places, and varied conclusions and perspectives that come from looking at phenomena at different scales, from the individual body to the nation, or from the local site to the globe itself.
Questions of space and scale apply to almost anything with a geographical aspect - Indeed, these concepts have fundamentally shaped Australia’s development as a nation. Our distance from Europe and Asia meant that we were colonised quite late and the transport of goods and people was expensive and time consuming (the ‘tyranny of distance’). Our enormous scale and physical geography determined where our cities formed, how they interacted and where people settled, farmed and worked.
Even today, our physical geography is important for our place in world financial markets (we benefit from our timezone), the mineral resources in our earth, our tourism industry, agricultural productivity and the sustainability of our cities.
Why should geography be taught in school?
In the past couple of years there has been discussion in the media about the role of geography in schools. Many would agree that schools need dedicated geography courses and teachers, along with well-designed curricula. There’s a been a backlash against courses such as “studies of society and environment” (SOSE), which awkwardly lumped together and drastically simplified all history, geography and all manner of social sciences in many Australian states.
Yet geography needs to be taught in schools, and done so by dedicated teachers in a way that doesn’t send students to sleep with an excessive focus on map reading or memorising place names. Well designed courses encourage students to think differently about the world and help them to comprehend the complex things that happen.