Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography

June 4, 2009

Early on, Alex Standish forcefully outlines what he sees as the damage wreaked on school curriculums by, variously, postmodernism, the failure of Western liberalism and the rise of post-national perspectives in education. "The postmodern challenge to knowledge and questioning of the 'relevance' of abstract learning to students has undermined the intellectual basis of many subjects. In place of intellectual and humanistic aims, the curriculum has become a vessel for society to fill with pet political and social projects," he argues. Unfortunately he continues to reiterate this point, while developing it little, for the next 200 pages.

There is certainly an important debate to be had about the ways in which school curriculums pivot between "traditional", scientific approaches and those more rooted in the postmodern, the global and the quest for relevance. This is especially applicable to the case of geography. It is a shame, therefore, that the flaws that riddle Standish's volume render it peripheral to these dialogues.

Standish represents the battle between traditional approaches to designing and teaching geography curriculums and those that have come to dominate in the UK and US since the 1980s as a dialogue of the deaf - one in which neither side is able to comprehend the other on any level. He sees no value in the approaches that have sought to insert the study of global issues and the advocacy of global citizenship into the geography curriculum, advancing both political and educational critiques. These approaches, he contends, represent a form of imperialism that, in ripping the study of issues from their geographical settings, both recasts them through Western values and fails to provide a meaningful context within which children can make sense of the issues they are studying. On the other hand, he will hear no ill spoken of previous approaches to geography education that were rooted in the notion of an objective body of geographical knowledge and the seeking of truth.

Blithering poststructuralists like me and clear-eyed objectivists such as Standish will always disagree on the relative values of the two approaches, but I would hope that we could at least find some room for debate. The uncompromising position that Standish adopts undermines this. Yes, there are problems with postmodern, emotional, inquiry-based approaches to education, but there are also problems with the approaches that they are coming to replace. Standish is only too keen to point out the former but at no point does he seriously consider the latter. Consequently, he does not open up the space within which the two positions may be discussed in any meaningful way.

The book is at its most effective when it provides detailed analysis of the contents of curriculums and the gatekeeping processes that go into the production of geography textbooks. There is much to take, for example, from his discussion of the geography textbook as a "cultural battleground". Here there is some meat to his argument. The book cries out for more of this and less of the generalisation that characterises much of its discussion. It cries out, too, for a more balanced assessment of the two contrasting approaches to geography education, and perhaps a recognition of the continuities, as well as the discontinuities, between them.

Is it really as bleak and stark as Standish suggests? On occasions he recognises that despite the yoke of the global curriculum, there are geography teachers out there who are providing a sound, engaging and educationally valuable experience for their students.

In limiting his analysis to the policies and texts of the geography curriculum rather than its enactment in the classroom, we can only wonder as to how this other story is being played out daily.

Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography

By Alex Standish. Routledge, 224pp, £80.00 and £22.99. ISBN 9780415468954 and 75495. Published 7 October 2008

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