Curriculum resources

True Blue Geography

‘True Blue Geography’, an Op-Ed article from Bill Pritchard and Nick Hutchinson

History and geography are the warp and woof of the social sciences. Our personal, community, national and global lives are the outcome of interconnections between time and space. To understand why and who we are, we need to understand both where we have come from (our history) and what places we're in (our geography).

The ‘history wars’ of recent years and the Prime Minister’s History Summit have put the former into the spotlight. Now is the time for a comparable debate on the latter.

This needs to happen for reasons of national interest. The great irony of our times is that the conquest of geography, thus making the world smaller and more accessible, actually makes the study of geography more pressing. In the colonial times of Phinneas Fogg, when it took 80 days to go around the world, knowledge of geography could be a luxury of the rich. Nowadays, when the world rushes in on us, geographical literacy is critical both to aspirations of national and global citizenry, and to the challenge of competing in a global economy.

When we talk of geographical literacy in these terms, we do not mean the recitation of capital city names. Geography is more than just a category in ‘Trivial Pursuit’. What we are referring to is a capacity to understand the workings of the world’s physical and societal systems, and the interactions between them. It is concerned with human – environment interactions in the context of specific places and locations There is a geographical story behind every telemarketing call from Bangalore; every hike in the petrol price, and the fact that global stock indices moved not a basis point when the Indian Ocean tsunami killed over one quarter-of-a-million people. Geography’s task is to write the Earth.

The problem is that the discipline needs re-energizing. It has been bruised by competing claims in crowded high school and university curricula. In New South Wales, the number of students taking HSC geography is less than one third of its level of 15 years ago. This reduced catchment has impacted on entry-level university geography programs. Aggravating this problem has been the loss of geography as an academic masthead in its own right, following decisions by university administrators to merge Departments of Geography into multi-disciplinary ‘Schools’ with various non-specific names. There are no longer any stand-alone Departments of Geography in the country.

In this challenging climate, geography’s broad-ranging ambitions and scope are often seen as its weakness. A graduate with Honours in Geography may not, on the surface at least, sound as well-credentialed as one with Honours in, say, Econometrics. In our experiences however, tapping the disparate intellectual reservoirs required within geography obliges a more taxing pursuit of knowledge than is often the case for a student lounging in the comfort of a narrow academic specialism. Geographers are inveterately promiscuous in the ways they borrow and synthesize ideas, frameworks and knowledge from elsewhere. Far from being a weakness of the discipline, it seems to us that this should be a model for how we research and teach in the complex world of the twenty-first century.

So what should be done? University-based geographers should not be complacent, but it occurs to us that the chief problem exists at the high school level. If HSC geography numbers begin to fire up again, then university geographers will feel the warmth. As with the comparable debate regarding the teaching of Australian history, the focus of attention should be on the year 9-10 curriculum. These are the years in which high school geography teachers have a captive audience. Successes in years 9 and 10 will flow through into years 11 and 12. There is no reason not to think that with a bit of imagination in the curriculum, years 9-10 geography could be (re)presented as a field of study which is central to national and global environmental and social futures. ‘Where do you want to go today?’ was used as the centre-piece of Microsoft’s marketing campaign in the early Internet years. ‘Do geography to understand and change the world’, should be the credo of a revitalized geography curriculum.

But what would such a curriculum contain? A framework is provided by the recently revised International Charter for Geographic Education, which specified five organizing principles for the teaching of geography. If we apply these principles to the problem of ‘how should students learn about Australia’ (although a full geographical education should also include examination of Asia-Pacific and global contexts), we are provided with a number of fruitful pathways:

  • locations and places, in order to set national and international events within a geographical framework and to understand basic spatial relationships
  • major bio-physical systems of the Earth (landforms, soils, water bodies, climate, vegetation) in order to understand the interaction within and between ecosystems
  • major socio-economic systems of the Earth (agriculture, settlement, transport, industry, trade, energy, population and others) in order to achieve a sense of place
  • different ways of creating environments according to differing cultural values, religious beliefs, technical, economic and political systems. This helps facilitate understanding of the diversity of peoples and societies on Earth and the cultural richness of humanity
  • the structure and processes of the home region and country as daily action space; and the challenges of, and opportunities for, global interdependence.

A revitalized geography curriculum should encompass the examination of locations and places that have special resonance to Australian national life and its place in the world. It could and should examine how places such as Lake Mungo, Myall Creek, the ‘Dig Tree’, Kakadu, the iron ore deposits of the Hammersley Ranges, Port Arthur, and the Sydney Olympic Games site inform national cultures, economics and politics. Examination of these places provides launch-pads for asking questions about the spatial interactions that create economic wealth, cultural meanings and political influence in specific places, for specific groups of people, in specific ways.

Our Gondwanan heritage is a fascinating story involving the marooning of monotremes and marsupials, eucalypts and wattles in a continent that still drifts northwards at a rate of eight centimetres a year. An appreciation of the interactions operating within the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem is mind boggling in its extent. Tides pulse, waves crash, predators lurk on the coralline ridges, tiny sea creatures exchange gas to produce rain-inducing aerosols in the atmosphere, tropical cyclones carve out chunks of coral and produce new channels and the rich soup of plants and animals leave the water crystal clear stripped of its nutrients. This sense of uniqueness can be enhanced by well-targeted comparisons with the environments of our near neighbours.

In rural and urban Australia, socio-economic change is constant and this reshapes the life chances of people and communities. Towns and cities are being incorporated into regional, national and global economies and communities in evermore complex ways, involving global lattices of movement of goods, information and services. In turn, these are bringing to the fore new environmental and energy-use challenges. The question of how large Australia’s population should be is ever-present in these contexts.

Aboriginal people were divided into some 600 different language groups when European set foot in Australia. Cultural values and spiritual beliefs about the land extended beyond any European sense of ownership. With the premise of ‘land as mother’ Aboriginal people have duties and obligations focused on the conservation and protection of their country. Debating whether Aboriginal occupance was benign or whether ‘firestick’ farming existed; or whether strange megafauna were hunted to extinction and the use of fire evolved after the extinction of virtually all the large herbivores or whether the island continent has always been fashioned by fires are interesting conversations to be had. Australian geography should include the palimpsest of European technical, economic and political systems laid on enduring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander systems. It should also consider the significance of our more recent diversity of heritage and ways in which the built environment, at least, reflects different cultural imprints. Observing, documenting and discussing these processes provide an entry-point into questions relating to the changing senses of place within Australia; how different people, in different places, understand their surrounds.

Australian geography has much to contribute on the interaction of the lived lives of its inhabitants and the constructs and constraints of scale. Individual lives in the Latrobe or Tallebudgera valleys express their identities in relation to rural Victoria or the Gold Coast, but are also citizens and consumers of Eastern Australia, take their vacations in the Asia Pacific and obtain their motor vehicles from the entire globe. They are knit together by the perplexing links of the Web: the richness that it brings to their daily lives and the threats that appear on the horizon. In this paradox of the geography of nowhere, place resurfaces as an important concept: the local becomes even more important in the context of an interlinked global village. Within this home space no longer can Australians remain in ignorance of conflict, war and terrorism but they can take advantage of interconnectedness to trade, obtain enlightenment and to discover the universality of common values.

In all of this, the study and teaching of geography should be inflected with a spirit of exploration and inquisitiveness. Geography should not be about the passive learning about places in the world. Its fundamental premise should revolve around explanation: of why things are where they are; how human society is structured in space; and how physical environmental systems and human activity interact. The kinds of topics that resonate through geography and extend and interest students include: Australia’s role in global politics, environmental degradation, genetic modification, resource management – particularly water, legal and illegal migration, conflicts at local and national scales, global warming and climate change, extreme natural events, the processes and impacts of tourism, access to technology and gender inequalities.

For a future in which Australians are well-equipped to understand and adapt to the rapidly changing world, educational bureaucracies cannot afford to neglect geography. Not surprisingly in light of the fact that we inhabit an island-continent unlike no other place on earth, the teaching and research of geography in Australia traditionally has had a rich intellectual edge. Re-energizing this edge, starting with the review of relevant high school curricula, should be a national educational priority.

Dr Bill Pritchard is Senior Lecturer in Economic Geography, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney
Nick Hutchinson is a former AGTA Chair.