How quickly things change. Twenty years ago, we were marvelling at the dismantling of the Eastern Bloc, and digesting the globalising implications of the internet. Francis Fukuyama could write (seriously) about the "end of history". Now, though, everything seems more complicated, and more frightening.
Yes, growing up in the 1960s, 70s and even 80s, we lived under the threat of nuclear apocalypse, and random bombs were a feature of urban life. But somehow it seems different today.
On one level, it’s true that the world is getting smaller and "flatter". Information is instantaneous, travel is fast and frequent. Global brands have conquered the world. In the 1990s, BT ran an advertising campaign with the slogan "Geography is history". Scholars talked of "time-space compression".
But on another level, parts of the world (and some of those people within it) have never seemed so far apart. This isn’t restricted to the growing awareness of differences across the Middle East and North Africa. Consider the USA. Not much in our frame of reference or value system separates us from a typical resident of Boston or Baltimore. But the world view of many of those living in the South or the Midwest seems to be constructed on very different premises. Fundamentalism comes in various guises.
How should we prepare today’s students for life in such a complex and contested world? A great deal is done in PSHE and assemblies; schools are also busy implementing "British" values and Prevent regulations. But much of this is reactive and tactical – intended to plug a perceived gap. Reviewing the role of the social sciences in the curriculum would be the strategic way of putting true citizenship on a firmer footing.
History, geography and religious studies have a key role in helping students to understand the world and their place within it. On the surface, the place of two of these subjects in the EBacc attests to the importance of this strand in general education. But RS isn’t in the tent at all, and history and geography are alternatives (communism or coasts, you choose). This aspect of education simply isn’t considered crucial for everyone beyond age 14 – unlike maths, science or a foreign language.
RS helps young people to understand other world views, and to interrogate their own; history helps them to understand our own past, and Britain’s part in the construction of other people’s (understanding empire is as important as learning about our insular past).
Geography seems to be the absent authority.
We live in a democracy; everyone’s opinion counts. Schools exist (in part) to ensure that future citizens have the resources to make political judgements. Lots of things feed into that – an ability to digest and deconstruct an argument, a degree of empathy for others’ opinions. But critical to future citizens taking views on, say, the bombing of Syria or the movement of refugees across national boundaries, is that those citizens have a reasonably accurate world picture – based on geographical knowledge.
In an uncertain, unsafe world, we all need geography more than ever.