Are they really serious about making geography history?

11 Mar 2019

Image: © merrvas/

As geopolitical crises and climate change transform the world, John Kennedy questions the removal of geography as a core school subject.

A woman who grew up in the same town as me, and who went to school around the same time, wrote a recent letter to the editor of The Irish Times asking the following question about the removal of history and geography as core subjects from the Junior Cert:

“Sir, with the removal of history and geography as Junior Cycle core subjects, is the Government hoping for a new generation of citizens who don’t know who they are, where they are from and why things are the way they are?”

The eloquence of her argument is hard to deny but sadly it was reported at the weekend that the Minister for Education Joe McHugh, TD, has no plans to review the decision to remove geography from the list of core subjects for the Junior Certificate.

He was responding to an open letter signed by the heads of the geography departments in six universities requesting a reversal of the decision to remove both geography and history as compulsory subjects. The professors rightly pointed out that the decision was counterproductive as climate change is currently the biggest challenge facing the Earth today.

This was the same weekend that the Government produced a new Future Jobs Ireland strategy that puts the country at the heart of the digital world. The Central Applications Office (CAO) has also pointed to greater evidence of Irish students putting future work prospects at the top of their criteria for selecting courses.

Redrawing the map as the world shifts seismically

Last May, I argued that without history we have no future, and I would say the same about geography. Its removal as a core subject is short-sighted and does a disservice to future generations. It is fiddling while Rome burns.

It does a disservice to these generations at a time when knowledge about each other and lessons from recent history matter more than ever. With Brexit unfolding and threatening to unravel the Peace Process, we are living through history right now.

One of my favourite entrepreneurs, Liam Casey, CEO of PCH, is fond of saying: “Geography is history.” From Cork and outposts in Shenzhen and Silicon Valley, Casey masterminded the global supply chain for major tech giants to produce everything from smartphones to headphones. What he means is that the world we are in is getting smaller from a logistical and digital point of view. In reality, geography matters profoundly.

Irish people were globalised long before it was proven that the world is round. From folklore around mythical battles involving the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolg, to the migration of Celtic tribes over aeons from India through Spain to Ireland, to the Brendan Voyages of the sixth century, the coffin ships of the 19th century, the mass emigrations of the 1960s, to Ryanair making Europe more accessible to all Europeans, Ireland has always been characterised by movement.

History and geography: It’s about who we are

Having emerged from the bloodiest century in humanity’s history, there are eerie similarities in the 21st century that you could only appreciate if you studied your history and geography.

With climate change an undeniable fact because of ever more unpredictable weather patterns, how many people know their isobars from their isotopes? Do you know that everywhere we go there are reminders that the world is constantly changing and can change again?

For example, with the stretch in the evenings, as I drive home from work admiring the setting sun glistening on the river near where I live, I note a pattern of small hills dotted along the bank. These are called drumlins and the term comes from the Irish word droimnín, or ‘littlest ridge’, coined in 1833. Drumlins were formed during the ice age as glaciers slowly tilled and scraped the ground on their journey to wherever.

I don’t doubt that the decisions to alter the curriculum are well intentioned and are aimed at modernising the education system, but the policymakers appear to be going about it in the wrong way.

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, has defended the reforms, expressing concerns about overloading the curriculum and emphasising the need to get the balance right. But when I see kids waddling to school with oversized bags on their backs that will no doubt cause them spinal problems later in life, I sometimes wonder: do policymakers think about things in a holistic way?

We need to think about increasing the learning of foreign languages and exposure to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as well as physical education and computer science. Similarly, history and geography are at the heart of everything that is affecting the world we are in today.

But we also need to ask how it is possible for a child to start school at age five and after 12 years of learning Irish can barely converse in it at 17. How is it we can take a language that we are trying to keep alive and instead make it stale in the minds of some (but not all) students? Why are students only being exposed to learning a foreign language at 13 when they could learn them and master them at a much earlier age?

A few years ago while doing charity work in Belarus with the Chernobyl Orphanage Development Fund, I took a bus overland from Minsk to Vilnius and struck up a conversation with a family. Their young daughter was eight and could speak five languages fluently, including Russian, Swedish and exquisite English.

During my trip, one of the organisers asked me what impressed me most about the work we were doing and the people we were helping. I replied: “I know that people everywhere are the same.”

History and geography are core to what matters in the world today. We need to think about reforming education in a holistic way rather than watch it die a death by a thousand questionable cuts.

If we don’t know who we are or where we come from, or what shapes or has shaped the world around us, we simply will never know where we are going.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years