Questioning the western colonial perspective in Geography education

Do you know that we study Geography mainly through a Western colonial lens?

Despite many years of Geography education in schools, we are still tackling recurring social and environmental issues around the world.

Poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, climate change – to name a few.

Something must be amiss in the way we approach our understanding of Geography.

How can we address the shortcomings or limitations of our Geography education system and mindset?

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Two issues on Geography education (in Singapore and UK)

  1. Eurocentrism

As Singapore Geography adopts the Cambridge syllabus, it is inadvertently Eurocentric in many ways.

That means students will be studying Geography through Eurocentric lens. Their understanding would be shaped by Eurocentric upbringing, experiences and perspectives.

While it is somewhat inevitable that we are ethnocentric in our outlook of life, it helps us to be aware of how we perceive cultures that are beyond our personal experiences, so that we don’t impose on our own values and belief systems onto them, and we don’t project our own bias and prejudices onto them.

Students also need to keep in mind not to subscribe stereotypical views about certain countries. For example, a photo of Dhaka, Bangladesh, shows a crowded city on page 72 of the UK geography textbook Interactions, but it doesn’t represent the whole country.

These may be highlights to the world, understandably so, and due to the sheer diversity of people and cultures, some amount of representations and generalisations have to be made, in order to not be overwhelmed by too much information packed into one book.

What do I mean by “Eurocentric”?

“Eurocentric” as in the system and mindset we grew up in, which includes:

  • We are defined and separated by our national and racial identity.
  • We live in a Western-based monetary capitalistic system (as opposed to barter trade etc).
  • We communicate through the medium of English language.
  • We judge what is considered normal through our own culture and lifestyle, eg a life in which we grow up, study, work, get married and retire etc is considered “normal” and mainstream.
  1. Inquiry approach vs Examinations

Therefore, as we seek to tackle Eurocentrism, the enquiry approach comes in as a methodology to ask ourselves why we perceive things as they are, so that we can understand that how we perceive things is a reflection of how we perceive ourselves as we are.

The enquiry approach opens the door to understanding the world wide, so much so that it leaves questions open-ended, to the extent there is no right or wrong answer to every question.

But the challenge is how to do well in exams if we apply the enquiry approach to learning and understanding Geography.

After all, exams is about getting “right” answers and scoring high marks for being able to conform to the norms and standards of the exam papers. Anything that is deemed outside the norms may not get any mark, even if the answers are interesting and insightful.

I say “no” to nationalism

I am coming to realise that I am actually nothing to the society or the nation that I happen to be born and grow up in. The society or the country probably only cares about my existence if I happen to represent the country in a positive way; for example, if I were to do something so noteworthy or praiseworthy that other countries look at me and say “Wow”, this country will then use me and my “fame” to boast to the world, saying “See – this person belongs to us. He makes us proud”, when all the while, I am just one of the numerous denizens living here in relative obscurity except for having my biodata in their computer databases. It actually underlines a sense of insecurity that a nation typically has when it relies on parading its achievements in front of other nations to build its ego and identity. On the other hand, if I were to do something that reflects badly on the country in front of other countries, I can imagine that its national news media would work itself up in a frenzy to shame me and “pariah-ise” me. No, it is not me that they care about; rather, it is their reputation that they are concerned with as they want to keep up the public image of being so-called squeaky clean and untarnished and being number one in the global rat race or competition, which is nothing more than an illusion or delusion.

So, my point is: why should I care what the society or the country think of me when they don’t really care or take notice of my day-to-day existence? Why should I want to conform to the perceived norms in order to be accepted when everyone else is too busy trying to fit in in order to be accepted and recognised themselves?

If anything, I owe my existence and sustenance not so much to the country per se, but to the community that provides me with opportunities to grow and contribute my skills, knowledge and values to make the world a better place. I understand that everything is interconnected, but I would rather pay homage to those who have directly built me up than subscribe to some obscure notion called patriotism or nationalism. To me, nationalism is nothing more than some political agenda of indoctrination based on power and control, that divides and discriminates rather than unites and includes everyone in the world.

Instead of seeing myself as a citizen of a country, which has political implications and connotations, including those of systemic oppression and marginalisation of those who are considered “outsiders”, I would prefer to see myself as a citizen of the world (or cosmos) or a child of the Universe.

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