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Adrian Kavanagh: 'It's good History has been saved - but we must also put Geography on the map'


Education Minister Joe McHugh

Education Minister Joe McHugh

Education Minister Joe McHugh

Education Minister Joe McHugh has announced recently he planned to revise the decision of the NCCA in relation to the position of History in the new Junior Cert cycle and would enhance its status to that of a "special core subject".

Many people rightly welcomed that news, but this now means Geography - a subject that had core status in most schools up to the introduction of the new Junior Cert cycle - will now be the only subject to be effectively demoted in this new programme.

At a time when students are energised by climate strikes and when governments and the people are trying to face the challenges posed by climate change, that is wrong.

At a time when we need to respond to the needs of growing population levels, and the geographically uneven distribution of these growing populations, that is wrong.

And, at a time when communities across the country are trying to pick up the pieces after Storm Lorenzo - and facing the likelihood of much such storms in the near future - that is especially wrong.

Knowledge of our past is indeed important, but awareness of our place in the world is equally important - especially given the political, social, economic and environmental challenges of the present day. As such, geographical knowledge and skills are important in helping us plan for our future.

Many of the "big questions" of the 2000s - such as climate change, migration, urban housing pressures, regional inequalities, transport/commuting problems, rural and urban planning - are already being addressed by geographers.

A grounding in geographical knowledge and skills offers students vital tools to think critically about the challenges of the modern world and to face these head on.

Geography students, for instance, know that the problem of climate change cannot be understood in isolation, but needs to be linked to the social, economic and political geographies that produce this and which can pose significant barriers in terms of combating, and adapting to, future climate change.

A lack of geographical and environmental awareness in the past led to poor decision-making by Irish policy makers and politicians in relation to areas such as the environment, heritage, urban planning, transport and regional development. We still feel the effects of those decisions today.

If a new generation grows up with limited exposure to Geography and Environmental Science, this could have potentially disastrous impacts for future policy decisions in these, and other, areas.

We only need to look at what has been happening recently in other countries, which do not have a strong tradition of geographical education at secondary school level, to see the potentially catastrophic effects of future generations growing up with limited levels of geographical knowledge and awareness.

If students lose the ability to learn about other places, and the people that live in them, or to learn about the ways in which humanity interacts with the environment, this could lead to a hardening of mind-sets against other peoples in the future and an Ireland that is shaped by fear and divisions, as well as increased levels of climate science denial.

Geographical skills are also becoming increasingly useful, and important, to the labour market of the 21st century. The wide range of skills a geographical training can offer - such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), environmental resource management and spatial planning - are being put to use today in a number of different areas and by different enterprises, public bodies and voluntary organisations.

As well as providing these skills, Geography also exposes students to the scientific study of climate, landscape, oceans and vegetation, but also shows how an analysis of place and area-based differences can help to better understand modern cultures, societies, politics and economies.

In this vein, the specific nature of Geography, as the subject that acts as a bridge between the humanities and the sciences, lends itself to training a flexible workforce that is required to face the challenges - socially, economically, environmentally and politically - of an ever-changing world.

A few Irish Independent readers (not too many!) may know of me in terms of elections coverage and may be surprised that I am a geographer and not a political scientist.

I firmly believe that being a geographer helps me to better understand electoral behaviour; in understanding why voter turnout and party support levels vary - often quite dramatically - between different places, this helps me to better understand the decisions made by voters.

Being an electoral geographer also means that I am sensitive to how voting decisions can also be shaped by the different places that people live in.

In short, by studying the "where", this helps me - and other geographers - to better understand the "how" and the "why".

As a geographer, and the current president of the Geographical Society of Ireland, I can naturally be accused of being biased in relation to the question of Junior Cert Geography.

But I firmly believe that Geography has a lot to offer students; perhaps even more so today than in previous generations. And it for that reason that I argue that - just like History - Geography should be given special core subject status within the new Junior Cert programme.

Dr Adrian Kavanagh is president of the Geographical Society of Ireland and deputy head of Maynooth Geography Department

Irish Independent