GEOGRAPHY'S NEW AGENDA

by Alex Standish

A ‘New Agenda’ of global civic responsibility including, environmentalism, sustainability, cultural sensitivity and life skills came to prominence in the geography school curriculum for England and Wales in the 1990s. New Agenda geography replaces traditional liberal academic aims with a curriculum focused on the personal lives of students. Teaching them about the world they live is now important not just for pupils to have a better comprehension of this world, but also to learn about the attitudes and roles they should be playing in it. Teaching pupils about political values and social skills, rather than the geographical knowledge they need to acquire has become the core of the subject. This New Agenda has been promoted by intergovernmental organizations, the government, examination boards, textbook publishers, and the Geographical Association.

Specifically this new agenda refers to curricula changes focused on themes of global citizenship including, environmental education, sustainable development education, cultural education and personal, social and health education (PSHE). There is a close connections between the issues addressed in global citizenship and PSHE as both serve to guide pupils’ attitudes and personal decisions. They are concerned with how pupils should feel and respond to situations, and learning only knowledge that is considered directly ‘relevant’ to pupils’ needs. This approach differs from the more traditional educational model that valued knowledge and objectivity. This educational model sought to provide pupils with an understanding of the world in expectation that pupils were capable of making their own deductions about the best courses of action. Teachers concentrated on teaching knowledge and as pupils became worldly they would develop their own informed private opinions.

There are several problems with geography’s New Agenda. Firstly, it presumes that young people are not capable of maturing into independent political subjects who can reach their own conclusions about social and political issues. Instead of providing them with knowledge to enable them to make their own judgments geography seeks to instil in pupils a set of sociopolitical values it presents as universal. Take environmentalism for instance. While everybody might want a clean environment it is simplistic and problematic to elevate environmental values in the geography curriculum in an uncritical manner. Nearly all pupils today are given the impression that the natural environment is a fragile entity that is being harmed by human actions leaving them with a pervasive sense of limits. Such an approach fails to deal with the complexities of environmental management and gives the impression that the environment needs to be protected even at the expense of meeting basic human needs.

Such thinking is behind the presentation of less developed countries as better off without development. For instance, the popular GSCE textbook, The New Wider World,  argues that: 'It is now accepted that many countries, even with aid, are unlikely to become industrialised.'  There is no room here for pupils to reach alternative conclusions, for instance that there might be occasions when environmentally unfriendly development is required or that some cultural traditions are best left behind. Such an approach does not breed critical thought and teaches pupils that humans are destructive rather than creative beings.

Not only does geography’s New Agenda inhibit intellectual thought, it is also anti-democratic and intrusive into the private lives of children. Ironically, global citizenship is replacing the geographical content of the curriculum depriving young people of the knowledge they need to become independently active political subjects. Consequently, the up and coming generation will be less able to participate in a democratic system than their parents.

Finally, there is the much overlooked matter of what right do teachers, academics, the state or other professions have to tell young people what sociopolitical values and personal feelings they should harbour? As a parent of one year old,  I cringe at the thought of my daughter being told at her future school how she should view multinational corporations, indigenous cultures or make decisions about what to consume. If these were religious education classes I would request her withdrawal.  In geography classes, I expect that she would learn about our fast changing world.

/Alex Standish is a geography teacher who is currently studying for his PhD in the United States of America.

July 2004

 

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