Battle in Print: A culture of relativism and misanthropy is undermining the teaching of geographic knowledge

Alex Standish, 20 November 2007

There has been much debate over the past two decades about the relationship between the curriculum and values. Primarily this has been driven by a crisis of confidence in the value of subjects themselves. Many practitioners have lost faith in the intrinsic benefits to students of studying their subjects during a period of unprecedented government intervention in schools, promoting numerous extrinsic reasons for learning (vocational, cultural tolerance, environmental responsibility, global citizenship). These values seek to regulate the attitudes and behaviour of young people. Their objective is to moralise rather than educate.

What has been lost in this debate is a sense of the unique contribution of subjects such as geography to the intellectual development of young people. Here I will argue that the most important value the subject has to offer is geographical knowledge. Geography also gives expression to truth and human creativity.

Of course the nature of geographic knowledge and its value to individuals and society has changed over time. The Ancient Greek meaning of geography can be translated as ‘Earth-writing’ or ‘Earth-describing’ (Knox and Marston 2003: 48). Towards the end of the eighteenth century, during a period of European exploration, German geographers Kant and Humboldt sought to describe the spatial distribution of phenomena throughout the world and the interaction between the natural world and people. At this time, geography was a leading science as knowledge of the spatial characteristics of the world was one of the fundamental challenges of the time. Humboldt’s Cosmos was literally an attempt to describe the entire world.

One of the most comprehensive attempts to explain the value and purpose of geography was conducted by Richard Hartshorne in The Nature of Geography. His account of the discipline is as follows:

Geography seeks to acquire a complete knowledge of the areal differentiation of the world, and therefore discriminates among the phenomena that vary in different parts of the world only in terms of their geographic significance - i.e., their relation to the total differentiation of areas. Phenomena significant to areal differentiation have areal expression - not necessarily in terms of physical extent over the ground, but as a characteristic of an area of more or less definite extent (Hartshorne 1939: 463).

Hartshorne concluded that the best ways to represent aerial data was using a map. Maps help us to learn where things are, what is around them, and to visualise the spatial relations between different localities. From maps we can also identify patterns and begin to hypothesise about spatial relationships.

Hartshorne also outlined geography’s role as a chorographic subject, which synthesises the discrete phenomena of the systematic sciences, such as biology, economic and politics:

The heterogeneous phenomena which these other sciences study by classes are not merely mixed together in terms of physical juxtaposition in the earth surface, but are causally interrelated in complex areal combinations. Geography must integrate the materials that other subjects study separately (Hartshorne 1939: 460).

Geography, then, has developed its own generic concepts and systems of classification in order that principles of relationships between phenomena that are spatially related can be established. It is this understanding of the spatial relationships between phenomena that helps students to comprehend spatial patterns in the world around them. This can be taken to an even higher level whereby inter-connected systems are identified into which fragments of knowledge can be packaged.

During the remainder of the twentieth century geographic knowledge became more diversified and many geographers increasingly specialised. In the latter part of the century, the discipline had several recognised traditions: spatial, area studies (regional geography), man-land, and earth science or physical geography.

One of the main reasons for today’s crisis of geography is the postmodern attack on the objective basis of knowledge and hence the possibility of a universal curriculum. ‘Facts do not exist outside a values frame’ cries David Lambert (2003: 47), chief executive of the Geographical Association, so which version of knowledge are you going to teach? It is indeed true that all subjects are influenced by the cultural and political climate of the time in which they are studied. The questions that individuals ask of a subject are very much a product of the state of the world and/or the discipline at the time of asking. Also, once data has been collected, the way in which it is interpreted is subject to cultural pressures. This is particularly so for subjects that explore the human condition and especially geography as it is an area of knowledge rather than a distinct field, such as English language. However, although knowledge is socially constructed, this does not preclude it from having an existence beyond the individual or individuals who established its basis.

This is why the value of truth is central to any field of knowledge. Not all knowledge is equally valid. Knowledge needs to have a basis in reality. It must be developed from evidence using scientific principles and methods to minimise subjective bias. New knowledge should be subject to peer review and the study replicable by others. This establishes new knowledge as something with an objective existence. It is the prerogative of both teachers and students to scrutinise geographic theories and knowledge and to decide which are the most insightful and which are based on prejudice. Geography teachers themselves will learn in the course of study and teaching which theories are fundamental to understanding contemporary trends, as well as those that students find most useful.

Finally, in studying knowledge of the world, and particularly knowledge of other cultures, geography offers young people insight into the human condition and how this varies spatially. Not only is knowledge itself a product of the human imagination, but so are cultural institutions, cultural practices, art, architecture, technology and economic systems. In studying geography students can learn about the range of human creativity, the potential of societies to overcome environmental constraints, how different people are advancing their means of production and standard of living, and different systems of political representation.

However, while geography has the potential to teach young people the value of human creativity and how societies have transformed challenging natural landscapes to their advantage, today this value is undercut by the contemporary culture of misanthropy. Many geography curricula in schools today depict people’s interaction with the physical world in negative terms, emphasising pollution and disruption to flora and fauna. This can be seen in textbooks, examination syllabi and the National Curriculum for geography, the outcome of which is to reinforce for many young people a cynical perspective on the human potential to change the world for the better. A progressive geography curriculum needs to oppose this negative perception of human creative action and instead emphasise the ways in which people enhance their living standards and modify the natural environment in positive ways. 

As Matthew Arnold said of literary criticism, the objective of education is to ‘learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world’ (Arnold 1907-21). In geography this means building a curriculum that teaches students about where things are in the world and why they are there in order to develop their understanding of spatial variation. Teachers that do this most effectively are those that can communicate the value of geographic knowledge. It is easy to spot the students who have ‘got it’. They are the ones who are hungry for more knowledge. In their minds they are putting together maps and theories about how the surface of the world is shaped.


Alex Standish is assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University, USA.


Arnold, M. (1907-21). ‘Essays on Criticism’ in M. Arnold, A.C. Clough and J. Thomson The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes. Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One. New York, Putnam.

Hartshorne, R. (1939). The Nature of Geography: A Critical Survey of Current Thought in the Light of the Past. Pennsylvania, Association of American Geographers.

Knox, P.L. and S.A. Marston (2003). Human Geography: Places and Regions in a Global Context. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Pearson Education.

Lambert, D. (2003). ‘Geography: a burden on the memory or a light in the mind?’ Geography 88 (1).

Festival Buzz

Caught in the Web

"Disagreement has never felt more important and more enjoyable than at Battle of Ideas."
Jess Search, Chief executive, Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation