I recently had lunch with a good friend who asked me why I wrote a young adult novel about geopolitics.
“Well, Chaturanga is about more than just geopolitics,” I started to explain. “It’s the story of an American boy who visits Central Asia with his dad. Along the way, he finds out all sorts of interesting perspectives about the region – as well as a thing or two about his family and himself...”
“Yeah, but it’s still pretty heavy on geopolitics, right?” my friend pressed, smiling a little. “Isn’t that a bit over the heads of kids?”
I knew he was harassing me, but he made a good point. Geopolitics is not a common theme of Young Adult novels. After all, it involves somewhat complex issues like international relations and geo-strategy. These are frequently the topics of foreign policy journals, military academies, or corporate boardrooms… but not typically middle school classrooms or textbooks.
“But that doesn’t mean geopolitics can’t be understood by young learners,” I replied. “In fact, it’s a fantastic way to teach Social Studies.”
“I hated Social Studies,” my friend replied matter-of-factly, his eyes diffusing into a thousand-yard stare. “All I remember is learning the capitals and drawing timelines.”
My friend had hit upon another good point. Social Studies is consistently ranked the least favorite subject by young learners.
So I went on to explain why geopolitics is so useful for engaging students. For one thing, it is the ultimate interdisciplinary approach to teaching world affairs. It integrates history, geography, politics, religion, art and culture, natural resources, the environment, business and investment, engineering, technology, and more. As a result, geopolitics naturally lends itself to differentiated learning. Most students will relate to at least one of these topics or related activities, regardless of his or her learning styles, abilities, background or interests.
My friend seemed to perk up, so I quickly added that geopolitics is a favorite among visual-spatial students – those creative, abstract thinkers who are bored to tears by rote memorization.
“That’s me!” he said, coming alive. Indeed, my friend is a classic example of the “terrible” student who eventually became a very successful entrepreneur.
“Geopolitics emphasizes the ‘big picture,’” I continued, make the most of his rising interest. “It focuses on long-term trends, cycles, and patterns of change. For example, geopolitics lets us understand why Central Asia has been conquered so many times, and who might conquer it next. Or it might help us examine the location of the Panama Canal, and brainstorm the consequences if it was closed. Dates and capitals are not completely irrelevant in geopolitics, but they are used only to supplement the bigger picture.”
“The Panama Canal?” he asked, and his eyes seemed to glaze over again. “I think I was there for college spring break.”
“That was Panama City,” I replied.
“Oh. Well, that makes my point anyway, doesn’t it?” he asked. Now I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. “I told you I wasn’t good at geography. So how do you expect a kid to understand this stuff?”
I decided to share a story from my first year teaching middle school. I was tasked with creating a world history curriculum, so I decided to kick off the year with a geopolitics unit. Having never designed one, I searched all over for books and websites that were suitable for young learners. However, most were too academic, too technical, or too politically one-sided. (At this point in the conversation my friend gave me a smug “You are losing this debate” look).
In the end, I decided to condense one of my graduate school courses into a one-month unit for 7th and 8th graders. But instead of reading textbooks or complex theoretical essays, we spent our days making maps, studying shipping routes, identifying the locations of strategic resources on Google Earth®, playing chess and Risk®, watching and discussing documentaries, writing analyses, tracking naval fleet movements, following international stock markets, and more.
The result? My students not only understood geopolitics, they also thoroughly enjoyed it. And we applied our newfound knowledge throughout the year to make sense of other issues we studied.
“Best of all,” I pointed out to my friend, “Geopolitics helped me answer the most infamous of classroom questions…
“Why do I need to know this?” he interrupted, smiling and nodding. Clearly, this was a question my friend had asked many times.
Indeed. Geopolitics is especially relevant to today’s students – Generation G (or the “post-millennials"). In the modern world, events thousands of miles away can reverberate to our shores in hours, impacting markets, gas prices, government policies… as well as our careers and personal lives. Kids are aware of this (remember, they grew up in a post-9/11 and post-Cold War world) and they want to understand it. In addition, the constant barrage of media stories from Syria, Turkey, Paris, or the South China Sea can be both confusing and sensational. Geopolitics helps young students make sense of these events. And with understanding comes empathy, perspective, and wisdom (rather than prejudice, bigotry, or group-think that grows out of ignorance and fear).
“That’s cool stuff,” my friend answered, kidding aside. “As an entrepreneur in a globalized world, I can attest that this knowledge is useful. I only wish I’d studied geopolitics when I was a kid.”
I wish I had, too. Instead, twenty five years later, I wrote Chaturanga. The book examines the geopolitics of Central Asia through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy. And I think it does so in a way that keeps learning fun and interesting. I wrote the book for people like my friend, and for my students who proved that kids can understand and enjoy geopolitics.
And I also wrote Chaturanga for teachers. Essentially, it is the book that I searched for – but couldn’t find – when I designed my first Social Studies curriculum.