WestConn professor publishes text about importance of geography education
DANBURY, CONN. — As horrified citizens crowded around television monitors tuned to news outlets in the aftermath of the November terror attack that left more than 160 people dead in Mumbai, India, several things became clear. First was the common expression of condemnation, outrage and concern that flowed forth from all corners of the world about the atrocity of the attack. Then, in whispered voices, many could be overheard asking, “Where is Mumbai?” “How did the attackers get there by boat?” and more often, “I didn’t know Bombay was now called Mumbai. When did that happen?”
Western Connecticut State University Assistant Professor of Geography Dr. Alex Standish would say that therein lies the imperative to teach geography; and he makes his case in a recently published text, “Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography.” Standish, a native of Oxford, England, who was educated both in the United Kingdom and the United States, has researched the rise of “global ethics” in the curriculum.
“Over the course of the twentieth century geography established itself in both the U.S. and England/Wales as a science for the study of spatially related phenomena,” Standish wrote in chapter one of his book. “Geography’s place in the curriculum was increasingly justified by its intrinsic educational benefits for students: it taught them about location, place, regions, natural systems, human-environment interactions, movement, and how phenomena are spatially interrelated.
“No doubt different teachers approached the subject in different ways, emphasizing different topics or utilizing different methodologies, yet all shared a common belief that, through the acquisition of geographical knowledge and skills, students would learn to make sense of the spatial distribution of physical and human phenomena. However … its intrinsic qualities were thrown into doubt by geography’s ethical turn,” Standish said.
Standish believes there’s been a shift in geography education from teaching students about national issues to concentrating on the students themselves and what they perceive their place to be in the world. The underlying change, he said, is a new focus on the individual as a “global citizen.”
“In some geography curricula today, a global perspective is precisely one of these political initiatives being offered as a way to engage young people socially,” Standish asserted in the introduction to his book. “However, global perspectives fail to provide meaning to people’s lives in the way that national perspectives did in the past. This is because it lacks a positive vision of a better tomorrow, faith in collective action for social change, a final goal and distrusts the moral autonomy of individuals to bring about such change. As such, it is more of a project in shaping individuals than society.
“Underpinning global citizenship are several socio-political values or ‘global ethics,’” Standish continued. “These include respect for the environment, respect for cultural diversity, tolerance of other viewpoints, concern for social justice and empathy towards those in need or different. Here, society’s problems have been relocated from the wider political realm to the internal psychology and the skills of individuals themselves. … Yet few have stopped to ask how geography’s ethical turn impacts the nature of geographical education itself and whether it enhances or hinders the education of young people.”
The concern is that students are being taught to reflect on their personal values and behaviors, such as what they consume, and not enough time is spent learning about where things are and why they are there, Standish said. He believes it is also not fair to children, and teachers, to burden them with what are wider political problems. Educational standards will only improve when teachers are given the freedom to teach and students the freedom to learn about the world. Once they have reached adult maturity, then they can begin to take responsibility for changing it.
Fortunately, not all geography lessons are like this. There is hope, Standish said, in the growth in popularity of classes such as Advanced Placement Human Geography in high schools, but the demanding course also points clearly to the need for classes in the lower grades feeding into it.
The confusion of those watching the news after the Mumbai attack illustrates that many Americans are lacking a basic education in geography and have instead been taught about being global citizens, hence the outrage coupled with the lack of knowledge about the location of the attack.
“It’s important to keep looking at and learning about the world because it keeps changing,” Standish says. “The job of a good teacher is to stay on top of the changes and educate the students about these changes.”
A high school teacher in the U.K. for a decade, Standish came to the U.S. and earned a doctorate in geography from Rutgers University in New Jersey prior to teaching at WestConn. His book was written primarily for teachers, students of geography education, academic geographers who are training teachers and subject leaders. The text is available at amazon.com and routledge.com.
For more information, call the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486. To order the book, go to www.amazon.com or www.routledgeducation.com.
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