Noel Castree

If you're reading these words you're almost certainly a student studying degree-level geography in an English-speaking country. This chapter is probably on a reading list for a course you're taking on the nature of contemporary geography. Whether you're an undergraduate or a Master's student, the course is doubtless a compulsory part of your degree. You may not like this fact. Unless you're intending to go on to become a university geographer yourself, you may well think that the course is both boring and rather pointless. After all, who, you might ask (apart from people like me and your professors), really cares about such questions as 'Is geography a divided discipline?' or 'Is geography a science?' (the focus of Chapters 4 and 6 in this volume). Surely there are more interesting and relevant things you could be learning about - the kinds of things, in fact, dealt with in your other geography degree modules (such as why famines still occur in a world of food surpluses, why the Antarctic ice sheet is apparently collapsing or how to perform a Chi square test).

In this chapter I hope to persuade you that you'd be wrong to think in this way. Specifically, my aims are threefold. First, I want to make you reflect critically on the kind of geographical education you are receiving as a university student. If you stand back from all the different modules you're taking (including those compulsory ones you may not like!), what is your degree as a whole designed to achieve? By personalizing the question in this way, my second aim is to make you appreciate just how relevant the issues dealt with in a book like this one can be. For what could be more 'practical' than your education? And what could be more 'useful' than you spending some time reflecting on what the wider aims of that education are? Education is not just about the inculcation of knowledge

(or at least it shouldn't be). Rather, education is part of the process through which we become the kind of people we are: it shapes our very identities as thinking and acting beings. This is, I shall argue, a deeply political affair. Indeed, it seems to me that education is politics by other means: it is anything but neutral. When I use the term 'politics' here I am not referring to the affairs of governments but, rather, to the fact that many social practices entail value judgements. These practices are not given in nature but, instead, reflect the values of those who engage in them. Accordingly, the third aim of this chapter is to give you the tools to understand the non-neutrality of your university (and, indeed, pre-university) education. Choices are made on your behalf about what you are taught and how you are taught. Likewise, whether you realize it or not, you make choices about what you expect from your university education. Yet how often do you think about them? Infrequently or never is, I suspect, the answer that applies to most readers of this chapter. Yet these choices determine the entire character of your geography education. Are they good choices? What values underpin them? And what are the aims of the education you receive on the basis of these choices?

These several questions explain the title I've chosen for this chapter - a title that, hopefully, has already piqued your interest. It's designed to suggest that the discipline of geography is a contested one at the level of both research and teaching. Professional geographers (like me) have struggled among themselves and with non-academic stakeholders over what geography is (or should be) about. This may surprise you. After all, academic disciplines are sometimes seen as rather civilized (even dull) places where research and teaching are quietly pursued - a far cry from the rough-and-tumble of, say, the public debates over whether and when the allied forces should withdraw from Iraq forthwith (debates which were headline news when this chapter was written). But nothing could be further from the truth. At the research level, human geography illustrates this well. In recent years, an array of new approaches - feminist, anti-racist, gay and lesbian and disabled, to name but a few - have called into question not only what human geographers choose to study but also how they conduct research. For instance, in her uncompromising book Feminism and Geography, Gillian Rose (1993) argued that human geographers (who, even today, are mostly men) have tended to ignore issues of direct relevance to women. More contentiously, she argued that the discipline's researchers tended to conduct research in a distinctively masculinist way: that is, they tended to value 'objectivity' and 'reason' over other (more feminine?) ways of knowing the world. In short, Rose was asking whether geography is a discipline about men, by men and for men.

Though these struggles over geographical research clearly impinge upon geography teaching, few in the discipline have considered how in any systematic way. Thus, if one looks at the discipline's main journal devoted to teaching issues - the Journal of Geography in Higher Education -one rarely finds any sustained discussions of the politics of teaching. Instead, one typically encounters essays on the nuts-and-bolts of pedagogy (like how to run a problem-based field-class). Rarer still are interventions like this chapter: that is, ones that challenge university students themselves (rather than those of us who teach them) to reflect upon the means and ends of their education. It's difficult to know why this is the case. In writing this chapter I hope, in some small way, to compensate for this relative inattention to a profoundly important issue: the issue of whose interests - yours or someone else's? - a geographical education should serve. Instead of just being passive consumers of higher education, I want to incite you to become active participants in determining the shape of your learning experience.

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Responses

  • matthias
    Is geography a science noel castree?
    8 years ago

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