Thursday, January 16, 2003

Environmentalism, and British teaching of Geography . (Link via John Ray ).

Eighty-four per cent of teachers agreed that there was a greater emphasis on values and attitudes today, and 68 per cent said fewer facts were taught today than under previous curricula.

Eighty-six per cent said it was now more important to teach about environmental issues while 80 per cent agreed that "geography should teach pupils to respect and reconnect with nature". Many teachers went further. Two thirds thought that teaching about "sustainable lifestyles" and the pupils' roles as "global citizens" was more important than teaching basic skills such as reading maps.

"Selective presentation" of issues is also evident in geography textbooks, the study says. A new A-level textbook, Global Challenge, published by Longman, presents pupils with a series of challenges on "cutting consumption" and "lowering fertility rates".

This bias "leaves pupils with the impression that humans can only cause harm to the environment", Mr Standish concluded.

Call me old fashioned, but I think that students in geography classes should be taught about geography. Teaching them where, and indeed what, Estonia is perhaps. (Link via a different one of John's array of sites). Oddly, if we want our children to grow up to be good world citizens, there are few better things to give them than good geography lessons. Give people maps to look at and study, and the names of countries and their capitals and other cities to memorise, and explain why cities have grown where they are, and what languages are spoken, and how all these facts interrelate with each other, and children will slowly get a sense that the world and human culture is bigger and more complex and more extraordinary than can be understood from a few years of life in one town or country. Look at a few maps, and start asking questions, and suddenly the whole world jumps out at you. In short, a very traditional way of studying geography is a very good aid for people in figuring out their own values and attitudes.

(I do like the name of the "Campaign for Real Education". The name may well be based on that of the "Campaign for Real Ale". I think I am a serious supporter of both campaigns, and think their supporters should meet regularly, and preferably together).

Seriously, however, the constant use of the word "sustainable" is a huge problem. Nothing is being sustained. Our lifestyle is not static. Technology is changing the world dramatically. It is also changing patterns of human existence dramatically and changing patterns of the usage of physical resources dramatically. Our present lifestyle only has to be sustained for however long it lasts before something better comes along. When physical resources become more expensive (normally for reasons that have little to do with their "running out") we are gaining a greater and greater ability to substitute other resources for them. It is certainly true that modern civilization has created environmental problems, but the key enviromental issue is addressed in this one quesiton. Is our technology's ability to solve environmental problems advancing faster than are the environmental problems themselves?

And if you can at least acknowledge that this is the key question, another fact becomes clear, which is that it isn't physical resources that are important: human capital is the key to everything. The larger the civilization and the larger the number of people in the world doing productive things, then the greater is the chance of solving all our problems. A larger population is an advantage and not a disadvantage. (Of course, this does require that bulk of the population can achieve a decent lifestyle and get a reasonable education, but the percentage of the world's population for which this is so has increased significantly in recent decades).

This is at heart a very positive view of the world. And the facts do generally support it. So why, then, is the view so popular that we should aim for some static, "sustainable" world in which we should reduce our population, ration resources, and do the civilizational equivalent of go and hide under a rock somewhere. This view is "conventional wisdom" in many circles, like, for instance, those people who put together high school geography curricula. I really don't really get it.

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