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Do we still need geography skills in Europe?

Why should we go to all the trouble of learning to navigate when we can simply turn on Google Maps? Why should we bother learning about map scales and cultural sites of the world when we can find them all using internet browsers? Did geographic skills  die with the development of GPS?

When it comes to the technologies that replace traditional geographic skills, we need to appreciate that they are still in their infancy. Before we can even begin searching for any geographic data we first need an internet connection, which can be a problem even in the most developed European countries outside major cities. When you  go on a trip to the countryside, or even just outside the city, it’s always good to take a small map because if you rely totally on a cell phone or GPS things can easily go wrong if your battery is empty or you have no signal. There is also the issue of the functionality of the GPS; how many times have you found yourself driving into a dead end, or trying to go  down an unsuitable road, just because the GPS suggested it?. The fact is that GPS does not constantly update all spatial patterns and does not always provide the most accurate picture of the real situation in space, and can thus lead us astray.

Most people are not even aware that almost every day begins with determining the spatial perception around them, thus introducing the day through implicit geographic skills. When we get up in the morning, sometimes for a few seconds we don’t know where we are, and we immediately try to perceptually place ourselves in the space. And no, this doesn’t just apply to hungover mornings. One of the main geographic skills we employ as humans is spatial navigation, which is even considered a type of intelligence. This intelligence, like any other, needs to be developed and actively used throughout our lives. 

One of the best ways to cultivate spatial skills is by going on a trip; almost everyone likes to travel somewhere, at least for a few days or even hours. When we travel, our brain receives much stronger perceptual stimuli of the space around us than when we stick to our daily spatial routines. This is precisely why we have much stronger memories of new spaces of holidays or foreign travel, than we do of everyday life. Despite all the spatial technology available today and the best efforts of travel agents and tour companies to ensure we feel at home on foreign trips, our geographical skills have still not entirely died out, because people still see almost everything around them through the prism of their own position within the space around them.

Although we may think that we are well-versed in the geography of Europe and would fairly easily find our way in any European country, the reality is different. The majority of Europeans do not even know the exact borders of the continent they live on, a certain number of people (mostly non-Europeans) identify the geographical continent of Europe with the European Union, while others may not know, for example, that Ukraine is the largest European country after the European part of Russia. And while it is true that all this information can easily be found using Google or Mozilla, this is important data that we should all know and understand. In much the same way,  some people may dismiss the war in Ukraine, saying that it is very far away, or in some remote underdeveloped country, when all they are doing is revealing the extent of their ignorance about European geography. The development of some basic geographical knowledge would enable them to appreciate the importance of Ukraine in the world food industry, in mining and in the overall geopolitical picture of Europe’s security  as a continent .

Another interesting application of geographic skills is the development of an understanding of the relationship between the continent and the ocean and cause-and-effect relationships. For example, by learning geographic skills we can understand why the port of Murmansk is so important to Russians, and the effect of the warm Gulf Stream in preventing the sea there from freezing. Another example is understanding the impact of topography on climate or pollution. For example, the construction of a factory in a mountain basin risks causing major pollution because the expelled factory gases cannot pass into the atmosphere and be dispersed due to the surrounding mountain barriers. This in turn then causes the climate in the basin to change, due to the release of heat from the factory into the area. In this way, geographic skills help us both to explain spatial processes and to understand the locations of certain cities, industrial plants, and other processes.

Europeans, and especially EU citizens, have been lulled into a false sense of security in their dependence on spatial technologies. Traditional geographic skills still have a valuable role to play, and they need to be developed – just like any other skills – if we want to progress, both as individuals and  as communities. Geography is not about rote-learning countries and capitals, although of course it goes without saying that we should really know who, and where, our closest neighbours on this continent are. Rather, it is about gaining greater understanding of the cultures that surround us, at the same time as enhancing our sense of immediate and more distant spatial awareness. 

The main message is that we should not remain closed in our personal space, but should go to as many new places as possible and develop our geographical skills, because maybe one day we will be the future leaders of our countries or of Europe.

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