When I was at school Geography was the educational equivalent of the Big Mac gherkin, unloved and discarded by virtually everyone.
This was because it was unrelentingly dull. We were a given a light snowfall of information about a number of countries, none of it deep enough to actually stick. Generally speaking we were taught the name of the capital city and the chief exports. As far as I can remember the exports always included wheat, maize and grain, and these three words featured in the first sentence of every exam answer I ever gave (“the chief exports of Ireland are wheat, maize and grain”…. “the chief exports of Antartica are wheat, maize and grain”… “the chief exports of the Sahara…” etc, etc).
Doing “projects” meant being a handed a map of Ireland stripped of all characteristics other than an outline of the counties, and being asked to fill in the names. This was as exciting as Geography got.
And because it was so dull, we all ended up forgetting about half of what we learned. I presume that’s why, although I can tell you where the North and South Poles are, I haven’t a clue about the whereabouts of the East and West ones.
When people slag Americans for how little they know about Europe, they assume it’s because they never learned about it. In fact, they were taught about it, but just couldn’t be arsed remembering. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, the same goes for us in reverse. One night in my local we managed to name 48 of the 50 US States. I was told to find out which two we were missing and returned the following night to report that we were actually missing five, since one of the ones we had listed was actually in Canada and two others weren’t States at all.
But somewhere along the way Geography upped its game. I think it began when the six-nation Common Market evolved via a series of leaps and bounds into the 27-nation EU (well, to be strictly accurate, 26 and Britain, who were given Free Trial Membership back in 1973 and still haven’t fully decided whether they like it or not). Suddenly Geography was no longer a dead, fixed subject, like Latin, it was changing all the time.
The collapse of communism halved the number of Germanies, while the number of Balkan countries exploded, often explosively. The roll-call of world nations changes with a rapidity that keeps atlas publishers in Ferraris and World Cup organisers in therapy. And climate change and global warming means that the very shape of countries and continents is changing.
Tingirl is doing Geography and has three projects to hand in by Christmas. These are on the Burren, earthquakes and tornadoes. The Burren is a wild and lovely part of County Clare, earthquakes are strictly speaking Geology and tornadoes are just weather, but all three are more exciting than drawing the path of a river or a relief map of a fjord, which is the kind of crap homework we used to get. As a result kids these days love Geography.
Everyone has a Trivial Pursuit achilles heel. I’m sure you’ve guessed mine. I’d slide my wedge-filled pie-dish into the very centre, my fellow players would say “geography” in unison, I’d be asked some baffling question containing the word “scree” or “delta” and I’d retreat in humble embarrassment.
Hopefully the kids of today will be spared that humiliation.