Saturday, April 26, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - the importance of geography

This photo from the NSW State Records Office shows sheep being driven on a property near Armidale.

It may seem hard to believe, but my life is not totally dominated by things such as the success or otherwise of Mr Rudd's 2020 summit. I do think about other things, geography for example.

In an article in On Line Opinion, Australia needs a geographic revolution (22 April 2008), Brad Ruling argued the case for a greater focus on geography, starting at primary school.

I read Brad's article at two levels.

At one level, it is a piece that very much reflects current concerns in terms of the way he posed questions and suggested topics. Here I disagreed with him.

When I did geography at primary and secondary school including geography honours, it was not just about maps and boring facts, although I guess that it could have become that later. I also do not accept that geography is just about interaction between humans and their environment, although I found this most interesting at school. One of the reasons I found first year geography at University so boring lay in its focus on physical geography. Finally, I do not think that geography should be dominated by issues such as sustainability and climate change, important though these issues may be.

At this first level I could have, had I so wished, subjected Brad's writing to forensic analysis. However, while this might have been satisfying in some ways in terms of the bees in my own bonnet, to use an old English phrase, it would also have missed a key point: I actually agree with his core thesis about the importance of geography.

I have the strong impression that younger Australians are geographically illiterate. I stand to be corrected here. My view is based on the groups that I know best, Sydney middle class kids plus older Gen Y and Xs, again with a Sydney middle class bias.

These are one of the most, if not the most, internationally travelled groups in Australia's history. Yet their knowledge of geography, Australian geography in particular, appears like a thing of shreds and patches, lacking breadth and integration.

This week I have returned to one of my long-standing interests, the way in which our view of the world is formed by the interaction between us and our immediate environment. One focus has been the impact of travel time.

In How fast do horses travel?, a post that I began some time ago but have just brought up, I look at travel speeds by foot and horse.

One trigger here were some very interesting posts from Neil reproducing material written by his mother. You will find the posts here:

By way of background, Neil's grandfather, Roy Christison, began his career as a pupil teacher at Croydon Park Public School in 1902. Upon completion of his training , he was posted to Spencer on the Hawkesbury River and then in the early days of the war to Felled Timber Creek near Gunning.

From 1916 to 1923 he taught at Braefield, a locality just over six kilometres south of Quirindi on what is now the Kamilaroi Highway. From there he was posted to Dunolly, near Singleton in the Hunter Valley and then to Milton and then Shellharbour — where Neil's mother and father met — and finally to Caringbah in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, whence he retired in the late 1940s.

Jean Whitfield's reminiscences provide a fascinating insight into a now vanished country Australia. This was a world in which transport was still dominated by foot, horse and train. It was also a world in which education was limited but central.

Like so many teachers at the time, Mr Christison had to pursue his career by what we would now call distance education.

Just as with my father in New Zealand a little later when he was teaching at a one teacher school north of Auckland and doing his two masters' degrees, study material came in by train. To attend classes or exams involved a train trip.

Not all trains stopped at the Braefield siding, so Mr Christison used to walk the four miles to Quirindi to catch the train south, returning late in the evening. I suspect that Mr Christison was vey fit. Even so, we are looking at an hour to an hour and a half's walk. Then as the train went south past Braefield, he would signal to the family that he was okay.

As with so many rural communities, the school was one of the centres of communal activity in Braefield. Again, families came by foot and horse. This, as with the car today, imposed a natural geographical limit on attendance.

Walking, a horse can average around 4 miles an hours ( 6.4km/h). Trotting, a horse averages about 8 mph (13 km/h). Then time has to be allowed to saddle or un-saddle, harness or unharness. Not everybody could afford a horse. Such people walked.

All this affected the pattern of life in ways that are hard for us to understand unless we actually go through the mental process of trying to think what it would be like to do it. As a simple example, social interaction was less, but more intense when it did occur. The immediate geographic world was far smaller, but also bigger because it was in many ways better known.

Today the immediate nexus between life and geography has become attenuated in wealthy western countries. To a degree, we now live in a world independent of geography. Yet geography remains important. And that, I think, is the nub of Brad Ruling's argument.

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