Chaps with maps are no guide

The school subject known as Studies of Society and the Environment (SOSE) is soon to be put out its misery. Henceforth, geography and history will stand apart.

In welcoming the divorce, a Geography professor condemned "SOSE" as a mish-mash. No doubt it was, but whose fault was that, if not the professional historians and geographers? And how will splitting them improve matters? After all, the PM says that history is a mish-mash without a structured narrative. What no one has told him is that geography has long been even more of a stomping ground for Post-Modernists, Feminists and Marxists. So, if history is the mash, is geography the mish?

The most recent issues of Australia’s two scholarly geography journals carry articles on bushfires, rural sport, early place names, ski-ing and global warming, river flows, racism, conservation, guest workers, economic and social disadvantage and suburban lifestyle. There is also a piece on the Elvis Festival in Parkes.

All this material is valuable, but its sprawl is not likely to reduce confusion among the impressionable middle-aged politicians happiest in the realms of maps and chaps.

What schools need is a critical and analytical connection around an historical geography. Australia has an honour roll of historical geographers, notably Oscar Spate, with his volumes exploring the Pacific Basin as The Spanish Lake, and Sir Keith Hancock’s Discovering Monaro (1972).

An earlier model was the 1962 study of the South Australian wheat frontier On the Margins of the Good Earth in which D. W. Meinig told of the disaster in 1870s believing that rain followed the plough. Had his book been a compulsory text for the past 40 years, the Murray-Darling might be more than a piddle.

Historical geography appeases those among our betters who know that trained killers give history its structured narrative. Contingents left Sydney during 1900 to suppress the Boxer rebellion which had been enflamed by the starvation from the same El Nino that had produced the Federation drought here between 1895 and 1902. Napoleon’s dictum about armies marching on their stomachs was again proven correct by the supply of wheat to Europe after 1914.

If history is fenced off from geography, either these connections will not be taught, or they will be taught twice in an over-crowded curriculum. The fun begins by thinking of the past spatially and of space historically.

Twenty years back, the then leading advocate of the three Rs, Professor Dame Leonie Kramer, deplored that kids did not know the capital of Czechoslovakia. Instead, they were made to study the environmental problems from damning the Danube. Today, there is no Czechoslovakia to have a capital. The Danube’s flows remain of concern.

10 May 2007