Friday, 23 September 2016

We'd be a better world with a little more geography and a little less economics.

Two things happened recently that reminded me of how we have pushed geography to the margins of learning. And that this is pretty much a disaster.

The first is a comment on my blog from by sister, Frances Coppola:
On a larger scale, the same thing is happening in the EU periphery. Whole countries are becoming ghettos of the elderly, sick, disabled and those trapped by low skills and lack of money, while the young and skilled migrate to the core in search of better-paid work. I wrote about this a few years ago. I won't post the links here, but if you want to look the posts up they are called "the creeping desert", and (rather more upbeat) "in the countries of the old". You might also like to look up Paul Krugman's work on social geography. He won a Nobel for it, if I recall correctly.
The point Frances makes isn't relevant to what I'm saying here as what interests me is the last two sentences. Paul Krugman is, of course, a Nobel Prize winning economist. There are no Nobel Prizes for geography.

Mr. Krugman received the award for his work on international trade and economic geography. In particular, the prize committee lauded his work for “having shown the effects of economies of scale on trade patterns and on the location of economic activity.” He has developed models that explain observed patterns of trade between countries, as well as what goods are produced where and why.

Now I'm not going to start an argument about what is geography and what is economics but I spent my childhood reading (well more than was healthy) Stamp's Commercial Geography - the 1935 edition. And it was and I guess still is about "the location of economic activity". These days, however, it's so much sexier to call yourself an economist even if what you're doing is geography.

The second event was a visit to a book shop. Indeed to perhaps the best looking book shop anywhere in the world, Waterstone's Bradford:

Filling in some spare time usefully by wandering around this wonderful shop I noticed that while there's a politics section, a history section and a social science section there's no geography section. OK there's some shelves labelled travel but these are almost entirely guides. What there isn't is any attempt to bring together books about geography - the modern day descendants of that Stamp's Commercial Geography.

Our problem is that, while we festishise history and drool over economics, geography's mainly treated as either shopping studies or quiz questions. And the result of this is that it's not taught enough (and perhaps not well enough):
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and National Geographic have commissioned a survey to gauge what young people educated in American colleges and universities know about geography, the environment, demographics, U.S. foreign policy, recent international events, and economics. The survey, conducted in May 2016 among 1,203 respondents aged eighteen to twenty-six, revealed significant gaps between what young people understand about today’s world and what they need to know to successfully navigate and compete in it. The average score on the survey’s knowledge questions was only 55 percent correct, and just 29 percent of respondents earned a minimal pass—66 percent correct or better.
In know this is America, famous for not knowing any geography, but I'm pretty sure we'd find a similar ignorance were we to survey students in European universities. We gleefully proclaim the importance of 'location' (even 'location, location, location') but then allow children to leave school knowing next to nothing about their world, barely able to comprehend a map, and incapable of seeing the connection between culture, economics and the physical world.

There's nothing new in this - the first edition of the National Geographic (published 128 years ago today) included this grumble:
Davis also takes time to bemoan the lack of geographic knowledge among the public: "It makes one grieve to think of the opportunity for mental enjoyment that is lost because of the failure of education in this respect."
I remain of the view that we'd be a better world if we focused a little more on geography and a little less on economics.



Curmudgeon said...

Is Frances Coppola really your sister? Didn't know that.

I once (as @cheshiretoad) had a massive spat with her on Twitter over the best way of dealing with Mediterranean boat migrants.

Simon Cooke said...

Prepared, Mudgie, to bet I've had more and bigger spats with Frances than anyone else!

Frances Coppola said...

Hehe, we have fought like cat and dog all our lives...

But on this I agree with you, Simon. Krugman's work is properly geography, not economics. And we do need a much better understanding of commercial geography. Right now, because trade is the new black, I am having to learn lots of commercial geography ever so fast....

I imagine that what happens to communities when the young and skilled continually leave in search of better opportunities elsewhere is recognised by geographers as well as economists. Remittances help, of course, but they don't cure the disease. In economics, we call it "hysteresis". What does Stamp call it?

As I recall, you used to read Stamp's Commercial Geography to send you to sleep.

Simon Cooke said...

Not sure what it's called - displacement probably (isn't hysteresis a term nicked from physics though?).

The most interesting question here is whether 'global cities' are actually real or whether they are still - in the manner of central place theory - dependent on their hinterland. We know that change is being driven by a relatively small number of such places (the UK being fortunate because one is London)but don't know enough about what Aaron Renn calls 'cycling out'.

Or maybe - as Jane Jacobs argued in the Economics of Cities - central place theory is all wrong and everything starts with cities.