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Geology’s decline

27 May 2021

Dear Editors,

In the spring issue of Geoscientist, to combat the decline in teaching and student numbers studying geology, Professor Ian Reid suggests that we should exploit the Geography curriculum. This should be the answer, but I’m afraid it may be too late.

During revision of the major national curriculum over 20 years ago, human geographers won the battle over content. Scientific, physical geography, which covers geomorphology, basic geology, pedology, hydrology, biogeography, climatology and surveying, was relegated to ‘environment’. That is, only those elements that obviously relate to humans and environmental issues, such as climate change, erosion, deforestation and coastal management, were deemed sufficiently important to make the curriculum.

A few years ago, I was asked to take a field trip to the Dorset coast. I tried to teach real geomorphology, but the students weren’t interested in the fossils, landforms, processes or even the history of science. Instead, they only wanted to know about World Heritage, and the planning and economic aspects.

I tried to teach the mechanics of coastal erosion to which the students responded by asking ‘why don’t they do something about it?’ When I trained, a geomorphology student was the ‘they’ and many of us went into engineering geology (I am a William Smith medallist, for example—a geographer gratefully honoured by a different discipline!) Such a transition can only happen now for students studying at the few universities that maintain a decent geography degree, rather than jargonistic sociology.

Many geologists over the age of 40 will admit that they gained their first stimulus and field work from studying physical geography. I had the chance to study geology as a subsidiary subject, but when the curriculum revision decimated the subject, I had to ask (in desperation) the Science Curriculum Revision Panel to include some geomorphology.

I agree with Ian Reid that ‘environmental despoliation’ has won the battle. Real geography has gone. Our subject Societies have not fought the battle and now it is the turn of geology to feel the long-term consequences of the fatal human geography decision.

Denys Brunsden

Denys Brunsden OBE is Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London

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