Don’t take Geography if you want to know what the capitals of the world’s countries are. Don’t take it if you’re interested in the major imports and exports of Tajikistan. And stay away from Geography if you like knowing the location of major rivers, mountains and deserts. These things are not Geography. They may have been half a century ago. But this is not what Geography is today.
Geography is the biggest, most relevant, most future-focussed and dynamic subject there is. You literally study everything there is on planet earth – both the natural elements and the human. It encompasses elements of Biology, History, Economics, Mathematics and huge chunks of Science. It is also both a practical and a deeply philosophical subject.
Yes, the subject matter is diverse – everything from tropical cyclones to volcanoes, from the dynamics of cities to population pyramids. But there’s also a lot more…
The REALLY important stuff you learn in Geography …
Geography gives us a ‘zoom lense’ to think with. Accomplished Geographers can consider problems and issues on a variety of different, intersecting scales – from the local to the international – to see how things fit together. Considering issues on too narrow a scale results in a superficial understanding, and thinking about issues only in broad, general ways means that you often miss important details. Geography boosts your brain by enabling you to shift up and down in order to consider both the details and the broad trends. Studies in globalization, development, climatology, population trends and urbanization are all examples of this.
‘Thinking geographically is a uniquely powerful way of seeing the world … thinking geographically … provide[s] a language – a set of concepts and ideas – that can help us see the connections between places and scales that others frequently miss.’ (Peter Jackson, Professor of Human Geography)
Geographers are experts in the twin skills of analysis and synthesis. That is: they can break down an issue to see how it works by studying its parts, and they can put a range of factors together in order to understand how things function as an integrated whole. For example, how do we understand the health of a river system or a city without considering both the minute details (the effect of industrial pollution, say) and the broader contributing factors (like economic growth and changing climates)?
Great chess players learn to spot patterns and trends. So too do Geographers. Except their board is the world and their pieces can be anything on the planet. Being able to identify and try to understand or interpret patterns means that things which seem to be chaotic and inexplicable are not always so.
‘Geography is a fundamental fascination. It is also a core component of a good education. … [and] one of humanity’s big ideas … Its ambition is absurdly vast..’ (Alastair Bonnett, Professor of Geography)
Perhaps most importantly, Geography gives you a sense of how everything fits together and is connected with everything else. From a delicate eco-system to the workings of an economy (and everything in-between) – no one thing can be looked at without looking at the bigger picture. All of us are a part of one gigantic whole and we are connected to all the parts of it. If you wanted to give a modern definition of Geography, you would talk mainly about how we study connections.
Another important theme that runs through Geography is the idea of BALANCE. Nature always tries to find a balance. Wind equalizes pressure, a river grades itself to find a balance and trees grow bigger to recycle increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Everything in nature strives for harmony and equilibrium… except us.
Geographers constantly encounter things that have not yet fully been explored or understood. We are honest about not knowing everything and so are able to change our minds when we discover new evidence. In teaching us how to think more clearly, Geography also enables us to be less judgemental and more open-minded. It also teaches us to follow the scientific method by trying to find, interpret and evaluate evidence.
Geography is just plain interesting and it stimulates the curiosity to find out more. This means that you are far more likely to continue learning independently after school.
In learning to solve problems and to offer creative, well-supported solutions, Geography encourages us to transfer these skills into other areas of our lives, resulting us being more actively engaged with both our own situations, as well as with global concerns. Geographers are not passive victims of the world, we are world-changers!
An essential educational outcome of learning geography is to be able to apply knowledge and conceptual understanding to new settings: that is, to ‘think geographically’ about the changing world. (The GA – See footnote)
Geography gives you a sense of the awesome power of nature. From the forces strong enough to push up the high Himalayas, to those that have carved out the Grand Canyon. Considering the time-scale that the Earth works on, it is the ultimate example of patience. We could learn a little of that ourselves.
‘You can travel the seas, poles and deserts and see nothing. To really understand the world you need to get under the skin of the people and places. In other words, learn about geography. I can’t imagine a subject more relevant in schools. We’d all be lost without it.’ (Michael Palin, actor, writer, traveller and former Monty Python member)
‘The best thing about geography is that it gives you the ability to gain an insight into the workings of our planet and all its abundant natural wonders … geography and geology give you this kind of long-term perspective on what happened in the past, to influence our decision-making in the future’ (Iain Stewart, broadcaster and academic)
Geography also gives us a sense of how adaptable, yet fragile the planet is. Life is everywhere – it is in the deepest parts of the ocean and in the driest deserts. Yet it is also fragile – change one part of nature and it can have massive consequences. In Geography we learn to live more responsibly and more gently.
‘Geography presents young people with real issues, globally and locally, giving them voice and reason to speak up. This subject never stays still, constantly remoulding itself to reflect changes in the world. This is why teachers and students love it so much!’ (Dee Saran, Geography Teacher)
Finally, Geography teaches us about the importance of the little things. Small things can have massive impacts.
I can guarantee you that in the next ten years every company in the world will have a geographical department. Knowing about the world is the future. (Juliet Ransom – CCL Matriculant)
I believe it accurate to say that geography lay down the groundwork to both cope and excel at university in a range of courses both in terms of skills and knowledge. Content aside, the skills geography inculcated are invaluable. Critical thinking about the world and society was one of these, but also and somewhat surprisingly, I think map-work was really useful in teaching the logical thinking needed to answer questions about the function of towns, trade, and economic activity in relation to settlements and landscapes. I’ve called on this way of thinking a lot. (Michael Moss CCL Matriculant))
The reason that I chose Geography as a subject was due to the fact that the world will soon need more people with environmental knowledge. More and more people, especially the youth, are becoming involved in climate change and taking a stand on how we, the people, are using and abusing this planet. One can even see it on a tertiary level, more and more students want to study environmental subjects in order to tackle and help solve climate change. So without a doubt, GEOGRAPHY IS THE WAY TO GO! (Andre Wassberg CCL Matriculant)
(The majority of quotes – except for the last three – are from a publication by The Geographical Association titled A Different View)