I recently published a post about History. I was lamenting what I perceived to be a lack of interest in, and knowledge of, a subject I consider to have great relevance and importance. The response was very satisfying, and the debate in the comments was a heartening example of what ‘good blogging’ is all about. Talking about the exam syllabus, and good and bad teachers, got me thinking about Geography.
As a child, I always loved to look at Atlases, maps, and my metal globe. I also had an encyclopedia that listed all the countries in the back, with pictures of their flags, the names of the capital cities, size of populations, their main industries and exports too. I would look up a certain country, find it on a map or on the globe, and imagine life there across an ocean, or on the other side of the world. Once I started to study the subject at school, I soon discovered that it was as much about geology, natural formations, mighty rivers and ice-caps, as it was about the countries that claimed their national borders. I also found out that most of my fellow school students had little or no knowledge or interest in the outside world, and dropped the subject as soon as they were allowed to.
Later on, I had some first-hand examples of this lack of knowledge. Some of it shocked me, especially when it concerned our own country, Britain. I met people who thought they had to travel south to reach Scotland. Others who thought Ireland was next to Wales, and not separated by any water. Even one man I met as a teenager who assured me that if I went to Australia, the people would be walking upside down. I presume now that this was him teasing me, but I didn’t think so then. Although this was at a time when many people had not travelled far from home, we did have a huge amount of men living nearby who had served in WW2, and had travelled extensively. That included my own father, who had been to India, Burma, South Africa, and Egypt. Their tales of distant lands inspired me to discover more, and to get better maps, and adult encyclopedias.
Much later, I was playing a game of Trivial Pursuit at work, during some down-time. My own crew-mate at the time was asked to name a country that bordered Pakistan. After some thought, he answered, “Spain”. I was smiling, and thought he was being silly, as he didn’t know a correct answer. But after some discussion, he told me that he really didn’t think Spain was that far from Pakistan. And this from a man who had been to Spain, and also worked in Australia for a year at one time. Years after that, I was on holiday in Turkey, with my wife and two of her children. One of the girls (14 at the time) asked me if we were anywhere near Ibiza. I remarked that she should have known how far we were (over 2,500 miles) from that island, and she replied “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to know where somewhere is, to go there”.
That got me thinking. Was it just me? Does it matter if someone knows that Scotland is north of London, when their Satnav will tell them what road to take? Why should anyone care that Abuja is now the capital of Nigeria, if they have no intention of ever going there, or being remotely interested in that country? And if you think that Pakistan is close to Spain, unless you suddenly decide to drive from one to the other, it is perhaps of little consequence. In our lives, we are unlikely to ever find ourselves blindfolded, abducted, and left alone in some remote place, needing to discover how to get home, or where we might be. For everyday use, the majority of people can ask their phone or tablet anything they need to know about a travel destination, or holiday resort. If a family is going to holiday in a beach resort in Cuba, does it matter a jot if they know that they are only 90 miles south of the mainland of America?
I wonder if anyone still looks at maps, or has a globe? Is the electronic equivalent enough now? Does that interest in the world now only come in chunks the size of a phone screen, that you can scroll down? My own opinion is that History and Geography are inseparable, both linked to politics, and the world we live in today. Lines drawn on maps by colonial powers, the proximity of warring nations, the lust for natural resources, living space, and fertile land and water. Geography impacts on our daily lives more importantly every year, just as those resources diminish with use. It would be a shame if it became yet another ‘forgotten’ subject, dominated by the map-makers at Google.
What do you think?