A flat-Earther teaching geography?

2011-01-25 00:00

“TO teach critical thinking,” is how veteran teacher Tony Hambly sums up the job of a teacher, something he’s put into practice throughout 46 years of teaching.

Hambly, who retired at the end of last year, began teaching in 1964. “My father was also a teacher,” says Hambly. “He began teaching in 1932 and retired in 1963, and I began teaching the following year. So pupils in this part of the world have had Hamblys teaching them for 78 years.”

Hambly was born in Bulawayo in 1942 and educated at nearby Falcon College and at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, where he obtained a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and geography, as well as a teaching diploma which he later followed up with a bachelor of education from Unisa.

Hambly’s first post was as a geography teacher at Churchill School, Harare, from where he went on to become head of geography at James High School, Kadoma, then Oriel Boys’ School, Harare, where he was also deputy headmaster.

Hambly and his family moved to South Africa in 1978 when he took up a post at Treverton College in Mooi River as head of geography. He was also deputy headmaster from 1980 until retiring from the post in 2003 while remaining as a geography teacher. But his teaching life wasn’t all geography. Hambly produced several dramatic productions, as well as coaching rugby and cricket at all levels.

Hambly left Treverton in 2008, moving to Pietermaritzburg and taking up a post at the Maritzburg Christian School. “It’s a lovely school,” he says. “I was very happy there — lovely children and an innovative headmaster.” He spent two years at MCS teaching, you guessed it, geography. “Over the years I’ve taught all sorts of subjects — Latin, English, music, maths — but always geography. It’s always geography, that’s my love.”

Why the infatuation? “I had a very good teacher at school who enthused me,” he says. “I was going to be a Latin teacher. My father was a Latin teacher and I loved the subject. But he said it was a dying subject and there would be no job ahead for me.”

So Hambly transferred his affections to geography, an all-embracing science dealing with the Earth, its various features, forms, inhabitants, and just about anything else you can think of. “Geography is topical, it’s relevant, and it’s all around you,” says Hambly. “It’s about modern life and why things work. It’s a mixture of all subjects — physics, biology, history, economics — geography is at the middle of it all. Geography examines current topics, housing problems, economic problems, why this river runs where it does, why it rains, why it doesn’t rain.”

Which brings mention of global warming, cueing a dissenting growl from Hambly. “Climate change is probably a better term,” he says, “but whether it’s human-made or natural is too difficult to say.”

“With any subject it’s important to develop critical thinking,” says Hambly, “not accepting things at face value and simply accepting what people say. If I’ve produced some discriminating thinkers then I’ve succeeded as a teacher.”

Hambly’s impact as a teacher extends beyond standing in front of a class. For several years he was part of the team that set the IEB geography exam and he has also edited a number of text books for Heinemann. Which inevitably leads to the question as to how such a recognised authority on geography became the prime mover behind Flat Earth South Africa (Fesa), a seeming offshoot of the Flat Earth Society.

“I was teaching in the sixties when the United States claimed to have put a rocket into space and they produced this grey, faded photo of Earth looking like a globe. And someone said ‘this is the end of the Flat Earth Society’. It was discussed at school. Children said to me ‘why don’t you join’. I did, initially as a joke, but then I realised these guys were talking sense and I came to believe it.”

Are there other Fesa members in South Africa? “Oh, yes,” says Hambly, “there are members but they tend to be secretive because they get teased so much. They get painted as lunatics by journalists.”

But how can you teach geography when you believe the Earth is flat? “I teach what’s in the syllabus,” Hambly says totally straight-faced. “Of course, I tell the kids ‘for heavens sake don’t say the Earth is flat in an exam, even if you believe it is’.”

Hambly, a former columnist on The Witness, is now a frequent presence on the paper’s letters pages and says he has many stories from his years of teaching waiting to be told, perhaps in the form of a book. “I was going to call it 48 Years Among the Savages and then I realised a lot of my stories were about teachers, so I changed it to 48 Years Among the Savages — and that’s just the teachers. But a lot of the stories were about headmasters, so it became 48 Years Among the Savages — and that’s just the headmasters.”

What about the pupils? “People think modern youth are more badly behaved than in the past. They’re not,” he says. “I remember back in 1964, teaching 18-year-old layabouts when half-a-dozen hitched to the Belgian Congo and tried to join Moise Tshombe’s mercenary army. They were told to go back and finish their education then come back six months later. There I was, a 21-year-old, trying to teach these guys. I don’t think that would happen now.

“The modern child is infinitely better behaved than 30 to 40 years ago,” Hambly says. “But people read about what’s happening in the United Kingdom, the United States and here, and think all children are like that. They’re not, the vast majority are super-decent kids.”

Hambly says that one big difference between teaching “then and now” is that “drugs had not made an impact back then. I never encountered it at school, even at varsity there were only two very weird guys who smoked dagga.”

Although Hambly might be retired from teaching, he’s still actively involved in education. As well as working on new textbooks, he’s generated teaching-support materials, including a CD with all the diagrams and photographs necessary to teach matric-level geography and a CD of multiple-choice geography questions. He also co-authored the new definitive atlas for South Africa.

Which cues further mention of Flat Earth South Africa. Is he really serious or is it just a ruse to stimulate critical thinking? “I do use it to encourage critical thinking,” he says, “but I also believe it.”

Hambly asks me whether I think he’s serious or merely joking. I honestly don’t know. “Look why don’t you join,” he says. “Life membership is a mere R1 000 and there is a R1 million rand insurance payout to your loved ones if you fall off the edge. It’s a society with many intellectuals in it, so you’ll meet lots of thinking people.”

I said I would think about it. Critically, of course.

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