Geography 'suits posh pupils struggling with three Rs'

Geography considered 'soft subject' for upper-middle class children who struggle with reading, writing and maths, academic claims

Geography class

Geography has become a "soft option" for less able pupils from upper-middle-class families who are expected to go to university, a leading academic has suggested.

British geography departments often have "some of the narrowest and poshest social profiles" when looking at the backgrounds of students, according to Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University.

In an article published in Emotion, Space and Society, he argues that geography has survived as a subject in the face of sweeping changes, including the end of the British Empire, and being ditched by a number of new universities in the 1960s.


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He says: "Climate catastrophe, growing global inequality, and the rising popularity of interdisciplinarity has helped; but geography in the UK has become a soft option for those who come from upper-middle-class families where increasingly you are expected to go to university, especially for those who were privileged (and so often have high GCSE marks) but are not actually that good at maths, or writing, or reading."

In the article, entitled Kindness: A new kind of rigour for British geographers, Professor Dorling goes on to say that at the start of the 1970s, boys from top public schools were not always expected to go to university, with some going directly into the military or jobs in the City.

But, by the end of the decade, parents increasingly expected these pupils to go to university, particularly top institutions.

"Geography's association with the English upper classes and upper-middle classes can be traced back to that time," he says.

Professor Dorling adds: "Knowing this helps you understand why so many went into finance (they had family connections) and why British geography departments so often are found to have some of the narrowest and poshest social profiles when the backgrounds of students across an entire university in England are assessed.

"All this is changing, but if we don't admit to this legacy, we will not easily understand ourselves."

Geography became an acceptable university subject more than 100 years ago, and acquired a tough image associated with climbing mountains and exploring, the academic also suggests.

In his article, Professor Dorling argues that more needs to be done to recognise the subject's origins and the time in which it was established.

"We must recognise we have a legacy of 'the strong man', despite so many younger academics now being women."

He adds: "If we geographers can better deal with that legacy, and with our past properly, we could be so much better, so much kinder in the future.

"Geography could become the discipline of the future, the subject that studies the impending world in an involved and helpful way – not a distant, arrogant or all-knowing way."

The academic does say that "thankfully more students are now coming to study geography because they see the world as an interconnected whole, so what has occurred in recent decades may be an aberration".

And he argues that one of the greatest changes to the subject in recent years is that increasing numbers of women are becoming involved.

"The old macho discipline will appear to be so different in the future (as will the wider world)," he says, "but for British geographers we will live for some decades to come with the legacy of who we are and the incredibly divided school system and society from which we have mostly emerged."

Professor Dorling concludes: "Geography should be the academic subject of the kinder future to come.

"What was once the core subject of imperial domination can and should be turned inside out and upside-down."

He told Times Higher Education magazine he would like to see more geography teaching in schools in poorer areas of the country so "people come and study it because they really want to study geography, not because they have to go to university and it's an attractive option".

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