The Aims of a Geographical Education

It's no surprise if you rarely pause to reflect deeply on your educational experience. After all, you were compelled (by law) to enter full-time education from a very early age. For most of your life education has been part of 'the normal run of things'. What's more, your teachers are the ones who seem to have all the power: they're the people who decide what you will and will not learn once you've decided to study their subject. Speaking for myself, I entered university (and was the first in my family to do so) simply because (a) most of my friends did so; and (b) because I thought it would help me get a good job. I chose geography over other subjects because I'd excelled at it at high school and because I enjoyed it (and, let us not forget, there's pleasure to be had from learning). Finally, I chose my specific university (Oxford) because of its reputation. In fact, I was so in thrall to its prestige that I didn't look too closely at the content of the geography programme I'd be taking if I were fortunate enough to gain access to the university. In short, to the extent that I reflected on my university education at all, it was in a highly superficial way. I'm sure many readers of this chapter can relate to what I'm saying. So let us now try to reflect in a non-superficial way upon the kind of education you are getting as geography degree students.

I want to focus on degree-level geography not just because most of my readers are university students. More than this, degree studies are different to pre-university ones in a significant respect. The onus is typically placed on you to manage your own learning. There is (in theory at least) less spoon-feeding at universities. Lectures, lab classes, readings lists, etc. are designed to offer you a framework to, in effect, educate yourselves. This is why it's all the more surprising - and regrettable - that some students (and some university teachers) still implicitly adopt what Watkins (hooks, 1994: 5) calls 'the banking system of education'. Here, both academics and their students assume that the principal purpose of education is training. Like empty vessels, the latter expect the former to fill their heads with knowledge. Dutifully assimilated, the student's mastery of this knowledge is then 'tested' by their teachers in term-papers and examinations. But surely one of the reasons for being at university is to think: that is, to exercise judgement about the world, including judgements about whether what you're doing at university is worthwhile.

So what are you doing as a 'geographer'? At first sight, this is a difficult question to answer for two reasons. To start with, you're all in different geography departments worldwide with rather different syllabi. Second, geography as a whole is remarkably diverse: one can learn about statistics, glaciology, uneven development and drought to name but a few. So there's no 'essence' to geography, no timeless set of things that are researched and taught about (see Chapter 2 in this volume by Viles). Yet there are arguably some signals in the noise. Almost three decades ago, the German critical theorist J├╝rgen Habermas (1978) argued that Western societies were characterized by three knowledge types. The first of these was 'instrumental-technical' knowledge. This was 'useful' knowledge that allowed people to master their social and physical environments. In Habermas's view, it was threatening to displace two other important forms of knowledge: namely, 'interpretive-hermeneutic' and 'critical-emancipatory' knowledges. The former was geared to understanding the world not explaining it, to values not techniques, to empathy not logic, to means rather than ends. The latter was geared to questioning the world rather than taking it at face value, to assisting oppressed groups rather than regarding their oppression as 'just the way things are'. All three knowledges, Habermas argued, are promoted in a variety of places (for instance, in the family, in businesses, and in civil society). But the education system, he insisted, is one important site where they are formally delivered. Crudely, Habermas argued, the first form of knowledge is taught primarily in the physical sciences, computer studies and business schools, while the latter two are to be found more in the arts/humanities (as in, say, English literature) and in the social sciences (as in, say, Marxist sociology).

I mention Habermas's work because as geography students you are arguably exposed to all three of these knowledge types in your studies. As a Bachelor's or Master's student you can, for example, learn how to control floods and why you should care for the distant strangers to whom you're connected through trade relationships; or you can learn how to interpret satellite imagery and why poor single women are 'spatially entrapped' in inner-city neighbourhoods. A geography degree offers you a remarkable mixture of technical, moral, aesthetic and critical knowledges. What's more, you get a say in the relative balance of these knowledges. The modular nature of most modern degrees means that university students can pick-and-mix course units as they see fit (so long as they do those compulsory modules that make you read a chapter like this one!).

Each of you will have a preference for the kind of knowledge mentioned above you most value in your degree studies. To my mind, the fact that the discipline combines these three knowledge domains is a good thing. But lest it sound like I'm arguing that you and I (as geographers) inhabit the best of all possible educational worlds, I want to sound a more critical note. I argued earlier that all teaching (and all research and knowledge) is political. I further argued that if you, as students, remain unconscious of this fact, then you risk being the objects, rather than the subjects, of your education. But even if you're aware of the political nature of your education (as you hopefully now are after having read this chapter), forces much larger than you threaten to channel your newfound sensibilities in a particular direction. In the next (and penultimate) part of this chapter, I want to say something about these forces and how they might impinge on how you value the mixture of knowledge types you experience during your geography studies.

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