Shrunken world of global ethics

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Politically correct approaches to geography will not revive interest in the subject, writes Alex Standish

The proposals to arrest geography's decline in schools - put forward last month by the Government and the geographical associations - are doomed. One reason is that in many instances the subject has come to favour ethics as its cornerstone, rather than knowledge. As a result, students all too frequently get lessons in moral posturing rather than spatial understanding.

While the plans do address some key concerns, such as the poor level of geography teacher training in primary schools and the low quality of some geography lessons at key stage 3, they avoid any discussion of more fundamental changes that have taken place within the subject in recent times.

Since the early 1990s, ethics have assumed an increasingly important place in the geography curriculum in the UK. Academics have led the discussion with titles such as "moral geographies" and "geography and ethics". These ideas have now filtered down into school classrooms as educators seek inspiration. The new emphasis on global ethics includes cultural tolerance, environmentalism, social justice and equity. These can be found in the national curriculum, exam syllabuses and textbooks.

"Global issues" of development, rising populations, pollution, climate change, cultural conflict and globalisation are put to students not as intellectual challenges for them to understand the causative factors, but with the expectation that they will take a "correct" ethical position.

A recent study of changes in British geography textbooks between 1907 and 1993, by Hongshia Zhang and Nick Foskett (2003), concluded that there was a growing focus on issue-based learning and students' attitudes. The study found that "the teaching emphasis in the subject has switched from reciting cause-effect relations to investigation into geographical issues through attitude-related and activity-involved learning".

It is no accident that the growth of "global issues" has coincided with declining attachment to the nation state, especially since the end of the Cold War. Supporting action to solve "global problems" often means siding with Western governments, Western non-governmental organisations or Western-dominated intra-governmental bodies to take action in "failing"

states of the developing world, undermining the sovereignty of indigenous populations.

These organisations are the only moral benefactors from geography's global ethics. In the end, global ethics are not as global as their proponents would like to believe; rather, they are Western in origin and serve Western purposes. However, whether one agrees with the content of global ethics or not, their inclusion in the curriculum is a direct attack on the intellectual and political freedom of students themselves.

The humanities should provide a window for students to learn about the human condition and its potential to improve the world for the better. By studying people in other places and at other times, one can learn about human behaviour under different environmental and social conditions. From this experience, students gain an insight into the meaning and purpose of human existence, learning to make moral judgements for themselves. As adults, they should later exercise this judgement as political subjects shaping their society as they see fit.

Today, this vision of the humanities has been overtaken in geography as many in the subject now promote its pre-given set of ethics as central to the curriculum. The geography curriculum has become laden with topics of environmental protection, preservation and respect for traditional and primitive cultures, and stories of the downtrodden. Empathy and respect have replaced moral judgement and the pursuit of truth as curricular goals.

Here, geography's contribution to citizenship means simply that students should follow its ethical code rather than developing their own moral compass. Yet this objective is the antithesis of intellectual pursuit and compromises their freedom of thought - the outcome being to undermine, not solve, the potential of students to play an active role in social change. It is as if the meaning of citizenship had been inverted.

As such, the discipline is not only failing to give students the knowledge base and analytical frameworks from which they can interpret the world, but its global ethics also portray a misanthropic vision of the human condition: destructive rather than creative with respect to the physical environment, dominated by a cultural past rather than shaping future culture, and unable to solve social and environmental problems which are recast as moral problems for individual action.

Yet the idea that individual actions can change the world is at best naive, at worst self-serving. This clouding of the relationship between action and social change can only lead young people to become further disillusioned with their potential to change society for the better. Nevertheless, many have commented on the potential of geography to shed light on the fast-changing world we live in today.

Geographers need to rise up to that challenge and show the many ways in which spatial patterns are being re-configured and highlight the drivers of this change. Educators need to decide on the intellectual base that students should learn to begin to understand contemporary change for themselves. These are the challenges we face to rekindle student and wider interest in the subject.

Dr Alex Standish recently completed a PhD in geography at Rutgers university in New Jersey, United States. This article is based on a speech to the Geographical Association's annual conference in Manchester this week

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