“In 1969, Geography (and History) was removed from the National Curriculum both in the primary schools and in the lower forms (Forms 1-3) in secondary schools.
“The resultant lack of geographical knowledge may well be to blame—at least in part—for the thoughtless treatment of the physical environment which produces pollution and floods.
“[…] Nowadays, the population gets this information by accessing Google in times of stress. But this is not knowledge that we should access only in a crisis; it should constantly be infused in the population as useful everyday information. That can be done by teaching Geography from an early age. ”
The following guest column was submitted to Wired868 by former Trinity College (Moka) principal Michael Clarke, who was also in Curriculum Development at the Ministry of Education and Chief Examiner for CSEC Geography until 2016:
Sixty years ago, primary school students were taught about the Trade Winds, the Horse Latitudes and the Doldrums. They knew about our two seasons, Wet and Dry, for planting and harvesting and knew the rhyme about the hurricane season. They also knew the physical geography of the West Indies.
Nowadays, over 90% of secondary school graduates know virtually nothing about these things. They also know little or nothing about geography—be it the geography of Trinidad and Tobago in particular or of the Caribbean in general. Unaware of an important 1969 decision, grandparents probably still assume that their grandchildren know at least what they had learnt in their time in primary school.
The awful 1969 decision involved the dropping of Geography (and History) from the National Curriculum. The subject was removed from the syllabus both in the primary schools and in the lower forms (Forms 1-3) in secondary schools. The resultant lack of geographical knowledge may well be to blame—at least in part—for the thoughtless treatment of the physical environment which produces pollution and floods.
The remedy requires two steps.
Step One has to be to restore Geography as a core subject from primary school up to Form 3 in secondary schools, difficult though that may be. Step Two is filling the geographical awareness void by constant public education.
These two steps would be similar to those taken in the USA in 1970. Conscious of the need to give citizens increased awareness of their role in influencing the environment, American authorities decided to reintroduce Geography and make it a core subject.
Having considered Environmental Studies, they opted for Geography, which had been dropped in 1948 after a casual but negative comment from the President of Yale University on the nature of the subject.
In most developed countries, Geography is a core subject from primary school. Here in T&T, however, we had dropped it after consultants from the USA advised us to do so. Ironically, the American Government was at that time taking steps to bring it back into their National Curriculum.
In 2014, we started to make a change by introducing one period of Geography per week in Forms 1-3 as part of a cluster called Social Sciences; the shortage of Geography teachers, however, has hindered the programme. Nevertheless, one period per week is not enough, the hidden message in the timetable being that it is not an important subject.
The importance of Geography is that it helps the population to understand among other things what produces our weather. It is the only discipline that integrates the Natural and the Human Sciences. Without that integration, the other disciplines remain largely inert blocks of knowledge.
Geography provides the mortar that bind the blocks into a strong wall of knowledge. In a Venn diagram, Geography has its core and overlaps all the other discipline sets.
In concrete terms, citizens need to know what a drainage basin, a flood plain and a levee are. They need to be able to make the links between the different elements. They need to understand that lagoons and swamps are parts of a drainage system and need to be protected; that clearing the hillsides can lead to flooding in the lowlands unless arrangements are made to hold the water back.
While we can go online and read about the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), each of us should really have that information as part of our general knowledge.
We should understand that the ITCZ which lies near to the Equator in the Western Hemisphere is where the moist NE Trades and SE Trades meet in the Doldrums. They are forced to rise, giving rain beneath. With the passage of the sun, the zone migrates north and south. Its northern edge is what in the main gives us our rainy season.
Last week, instead of driving steadily south, it went into park over Trinidad and Tobago. Where we generally have it above us for a day or two at most, last weekend on this occasion it stayed over us for all of five days.
The rain varies in intensity within the zone from none to thunderstorm and in duration from a few minutes to six or more hours of heavy rain and also in spatial distribution which is unpredictable (so far). Thus, in Tobago, rivers in spate flooded villages and the gentle King’s River waterfall became a roaring torrent.
On the Caroni Plain, there was continuous, heavy rain. The water could not drain away fast enough so the whole north-eastern and central part of the plain was under water. In the northwest of the country, there were milder conditions.
The north-eastern coast of Trinidad had really heavy rainfall and towns and villages there were cut off as bridges and even parts of the road were washed away.
Greenvale is built in the floodplain, just off the north bank of the Caroni River, east of Piarco, west of Sangre Grande and south of Arima. Floodplain boundaries are identified by periods—annual, five-year, ten–year, etc. Within recent times, that area had not been flooded so it was thought to be safe.
As a precaution against extra-heavy rainfall, however, a retention pond was built nearby. But the weekend’s rains proved too much. It seems that the flooding was made worse as the levée was breached; it had been weakened by people who, ignorant of its function, took material from it to use as fill.
Water cannot get back into the river once the levee is breached; it has to flow alongside it to a low point or be pumped over it.
Nowadays, the population gets this information by accessing Google in times of stress. But this is not knowledge that we should access only in a crisis; it should constantly be infused in the population as useful everyday information. That can be done by teaching Geography from an early age.
If we had had British, Australian or Canadian consultants in 1969, we would not have had this unfortunate dearth of geographical knowledge. Consultants tend to use their home as a model and none of these countries has ever dropped Geography.
So we now have to copy the strategy used by the USA to correct the error. In the short term, it would help if geographical information is presented to the public whenever possible.
In newspapers and the television news, for instance, diagrams and maps should be used far more often to illustrate phenomena and processes such as the ITCZ and to show the location of the item/incident/crime. That would help build a sense of place and place names like Greenvale would have more meaning for the ordinary citizen.
The major religions use the full moon to fix the dates of the major festivals such as Easter, Eid-ul-Fitr and Divali. But how many people can recognize or explain the four phases of the moon? Is television currently any help in that regard?
In the long term, bringing back Geography in the National Curriculum from the primary level is the way to go. We can start by using GIS technology to make students develop a sense of place. That task will be made somewhat easier now that, in response to a 2000 request from the Curriculum Development Division, the St Augustine Campus of The UWI offers Geography.
With any number of issues of a geographical nature facing us nowadays—earthquakes, volcanoes, climate change, population migration, to name only four—we all need to be better informed about how our environment really works. That seems to call for Geography to be taught from primary school and as a separate subject in the lower forms in secondary schools; and not just for a single period!
However, because many of the current policy makers, having been schooled after 1969, have no idea of what Geography truly is all about, there may well be resistance.
The Canadians made the case in this pamphlet:
We need only substitute “Trinidad and Tobago” for “Canada.”