The story about some Memorial University students’ woeful ignorance of world geography caught many Canadians by surprise. It shouldn’t have. The erosion of geography as a curriculum staple has been a decades-long project willfully undertaken by government. There’s a terrible irony in that this assault on our understanding of the sense of physical place – where we stand in our world – has coincided with globalization, and massive population shifts.
When Memorial professor Judith Adler taught her sociology students about the family in different parts of the world, she should have been able to safely assume that those students, having achieved entry to university, would know where Africa or Europe is on a map or be able to identify the Atlantic Ocean. The fact that some couldn’t is an indictment of a system that’s failing young people.
Canadians are responsible for the second-largest country in the world in terms of land mass. If we’re to fulfill our duty to the trust we’ve inherited, the sovereignty over that vast area, then it’s critical we understand our geography. More than that, Canada absorbs hundreds of thousands of newcomers each year. If native Canadians don’t know where Canada stands in the world, how can we expect people who’ve come from distant countries to?
What does it do to a sense of national identity when you don’t know where you are on the map and, in terms of human geography, who you are as a people? As a teacher, I’ve seen the difference geography can make in my students. Those who embrace it – who “get it” – develop a “sense of place.” They understand that who they are is determined in part by where they are. Undeniably, geography contributes to a sense of identity on a personal level and collectively as a nation.
Geography is a building block of civil society. The vibrancy of a democracy is directly linked to a geographic education. Geography is critical to understanding Canada’s challenges, such as sending troops to Mali, building pipelines in B.C., addressing treaty rights of first nations or opening the Northwest Passage to tourism.
The overarching solution is strengthening geographic education from kindergarten through Grade 12. Sustained emphasis on geography in the curriculum is a prerequisite to solving geographic illiteracy.
Curriculum alone is only part of the solution. Geography needs teachers – teachers whose passion is fostered and enhanced by geography-specific professional development, teachers who will fight to ensure that geography is given its due, along with other core subjects such as geography’s boon companion, history.
Even the most dedicated teacher needs the tools to teach. To this end, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic Education make teaching tools freely available for both the classroom and the home school, placing within easy reach resources on Canadian topics such as the boreal forest, energy use, watershed protection, the War of 1812, national parks, railways, football, capital cities and wind energy.
But even these efforts are not enough. Educational authorities need to commit, parents need to get on board, and students themselves need to declaim that geography matters.
If we continue to shortchange Canadian children in terms of a solid education in geography, we’re essentially robbing them of their potential and capacity to engage fully in society as part of an informed citizenry. Not only is this grossly unfair to today’s students, but it also unduly compromises Canada’s future in a globalized world.
Connie Wyatt Anderson is chair of Canadian Geographic Education.