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'Stop pitching history and geography against each other – the two can, and should, be studied together'

It shouldn't be a choice of either history or geography at GCSE – they are both equally essential to understanding our place in the world today, writes Kevin Stannard

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It shouldn't be a choice of either history or geography at GCSE – they are both equally essential to understanding our place in the world today, writes Kevin Stannard

Last week I wrote about the invidious "choices" imposed on students, which largely involve shutting things down and enforcing premature specialisation. Fourteen strikes me as too early an age at which to jettison subjects, in what amounts to a fallacy of false choice.

Many humanities and creative subjects have credible claims to being included in every student’s programme until at least 16, instead of being left (where they survive at all) to scrapping it out in the "options" arena.

I want to make a special case for two subjects: history and geography. To be sure, they reside in the EBacc, and have a status that other subjects eye with envy. But they are bracketed as alternatives – for many students, it is either/or.

This enforced bifurcation at age 14 is intellectually and educationally indefensible. In the KS4 curriculum, history and geography are substitutable variables in the educational equivalent of the Phillips curve.

The two subjects are complementary, not commutable. History is often seen as a "humanities" subject, but some historians would claim it as a social science. True, much of geography might also be encapsulated in the latter term, but impoverishment follows if we forget geography’s roots in our relationship with the physical world. The two subjects should not be traded off on grounds of content or object of study.

Most disciplines are cut from epistemological cloth using patterns pertaining to content and object of study. This is as true of biology as it is of religious studies, art, literature and languages. Geography and history are different, being notable for the dimensions (time, space) along which their diverse objects of study are ranged.

Central disciplines

These dimensions should be seen not as containers of content, but as axes of imagination and understanding. They work in harness, together providing a grid within which other disciplines can be located. Understanding our place in the world today demands a solid grounding in both history and geography. How we got here, and how things differ elsewhere, are two fundamental questions, and they underlie much of the rest of the curriculum.

One way to keep history and geography together at the heart of the curriculum might be to combine them in a cross-curricular programme, as in US schools with social studies. But this dilutes the disciplinary focus and reduces rigour. It also ignores the fact that neither subject fits comfortably into the social studies box.

France offers an alternative association: the disciplines of history and geography have traditionally had a highly productive partnership, the Annales school of history responding reciprocally to the approach taken by the Vidalian school of geography. History and geography are two sides of the same coin.

It’s easy to see how history enriches and informs other disciplines, but we should make a complementary claim for geography. Jared Diamond observed that geography was central to Darwin’s thinking, and argues that in our globalized modern world, geography is, more than ever, a central discipline.

Geography and history are central disciplines, two columns supporting the other blocks of knowledge. Our curriculum should better reflect the centrality of these two subjects.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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