|St. Lawrence Institute|
for the Advancement of Learning
One of the courses I taught this semester was Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction, a methods course for aspiring secondary school teachers. There were thirty students in my class: all history, economics and geography graduates. Eleven were geographers and future high school geography teachers.
Every year the first assignment in this course is a written syllabus critique. Students are asked to take one of the government course outlines and compare it to their own idea of the nature of their respective discipline. The question was: How well does the government course outline propose to teach your discipline?
The critiques handed in by the geography students were most interesting. Most saw the ministry's two geography courses as inadequate and too narrow. They found them not holistic enough. There was not enough about the planet, not enough about the ozone layer, global warming, the greenhouse effect, rainforests, and the ecosystem. There was not enough about human geography, not enough about native peoples, underdevelopment and overpopulation. There was not enough examination of the social, demographic, political, economic and psychological implications of geography.
Why did they feel these shortcomings so keenly? Because to them geography influenced, nay, determined everything. It was the universal discipline par excellence. Environmentalism in particular was noticeable in all the students' papers, as was their chagrin at the absence of environmental issues in the government's course outline.
A few students argued that the syllabuses should be broadened because geography was "about reality." About reality? I always thought philosophy was about reality. Was this new geography some sort of geographical philosophy? It seemed to be about everything except space, land and water, which was what I thought geography was about. I became intrigued about how this new geography defined itself. Its parameters seemed unlimited. The reverence with which the students wrote about the environment had a theological tone to it, almost a form of pantheism.
I took geography as an elementary and high school student, and I taught some as a rookie teacher twentyeight years ago. I remember its study and my geography teachers fondly. My geography teacher in elementary school taught me through mnemonic techniques. "HOMES" to this day allows me to remember Canada's five Great Lakes -- Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. My high school geography teacher introduced us to Time magazine, when Whittaker Chambers still wrote for it and it wasn't as ideological as it is today. Even though it was not specifically about geography, Time still opened a young reader's horizons about the world, its regions and countries. I remember competitions in class about knowing the ten Canadian provinces and each of their capitals. And I recall listening with fascination to the "three routes" from Britain to the Orient: down the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, where the waves could reach a height of ninety feet; or through the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden, and into the Indian Ocean; or in an emergency the "all red" (as in British Empire red) route to the Orient across the Atlantic, across Canada on the CPR, and then across the Pacific.
When I arrived at McGill in 1972 my geography colleagues told me that was all over. What I had been taught was British Imperial geography and its only purpose was for the British officer to know what kind of suit to bring when he was posted to Bombay, Barbados or Hong Kong. The new geography was about "central place theory," a movement away from a focus on the physical features of the planet, and towards a focus on demographics and an interest in places where people congregate. Geographers, paralleling a move to the left across academia, had left their proper field of study -- the earth -- and had become interested in how development and change occurred in various cultures. And that's the last I heard. For a number of years I didn't teach geography and I didn't hear much about how the discipline was developing.
Then, two years ago, due to cutbacks and downsizing, our department decided to abolish separate history, geography and economic methods courses and to have one generic social studies methods course with all historians, geographers and economists in it. So, I was reintroduced to geographers and given the opportunity to read their assignments and learn about their thinking, which leads me to my observations.
Of course, a reader could rightly ask how I am qualified to comment about the intellectual discipline called geography, with my memories of school rooms decorated with a British-red map of the world on the wall plus some further thought, but no rigorous study. Severe critics may liken it to -- and give it the same credence as -- a poet's views on macroeconomics. But a poet may discuss the state of the world, and have an idea about its future. If the reader will accept that, then my criticism of the study of geography will have some force.
In an attempt to play it safe and to defend its future in the postcolonial era, it seems that the academic geography community has inflated their mission rather than risk the possible disappearance of their discipline. In an era of rhetoric about "interdisciplinary studies," the crossing of intellectual frontiers and the enlargement of territory among the disciplines became a common and acceptable practice in academe. That is one thing. But let us face facts: the new geography is not geography anymore, but a catch-all for societal worry and malaise. In fact, one has only to imagine some currently "relevant" topic to find that it is somehow included in the modern discipline of geography.
Geography was once the study of the physical and material world, or, more simply, the study of the earth and its features. It was about what Eric Voegelin once called "the immanent (i.e. not transcendent) world." Now I see that geography has become somewhat noticeably transcendental. It has ventured into philosophy, but into a particular holistic and deterministic philosophy, a philosophy of the environment which to me often sounds like a rewarmed version of, as I called it earlier in this article, pantheism.
This new geography has breathed the air of contemporary secularism, materialism, and determinism and become beholden to the most prevalent version of secular, materialist and determinist thought in our time -- applied Marxism. But it is an applied Marxism with a difference. In classical Marxism, in the material world economics is the engine of history. In the new geography the physical environment is the determinant of everything, including history. As I read it, the new geography has become something that can be more properly called totalitarian geography, because the new geographers believe that reality, in all its aspects, is the proper domain of their discipline. In a sense, they believe it to be the discipline par excellence, into which all knowledge can be incorporated.
But I have hope. With the demise of Marxism and totalitarianism I foresee a continuing evolution in the discipline and a search for a post-Marxist and post-totalitarian paradigm in geography, the exact shape of which I can't foresee. When I returned their assignments this is what I gently tried to insinuate to my students.
It may be that a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, that once freedom has been achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued, and that the free growth of ideas which is the essence of a free society will bring about the destruction of the foundations on which it depends.
-- Friedrich Hayek, "The Intellectuals and Socialism."