from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1994

Reviewing a high-school book in social studies

World Cultures: A Global Mosaic
1993. 828 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-296781-2.
Prentice Hall, 113 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632.
(This company is a part of Paramount Communications, which is a part
of the entertainment company Viacom Inc.)

A Trivial, Ill-Conceived Book
Telling Little About Cultures

James R. Giese

If I were searching for a textbook that would help students to analyze and comprehend a variety of human cultures, what features would I want the book to have?

First, I would want it to demonstrate a rich conception of culture, so that students could see that all cultures share certain essential elements, arranged in similar ways. These elements include ecological relationships, social structures, and mental constructs (e.g., myths, values, ideas about the natural world, and technological approaches to coping with that world). A book that provided this perspective would help students to deal with both the similarities and the differences that various cultures display.

Second, the book would have to make careful distinctions among such phenomena as culture, society, folkways, norms and laws. It would also have to distinguish among the various influences that cause cultures to change over time -- influences such as invention, diffusion and acculturation.

Third, I would want the book to be analytical and to deal in depth with a limited number of specific cultures, rather than mentioning a great many cultures while taking only a quick, superficial glance at each.

And fourth, I would want it to teach students about the methods and materials that social scientists use as they study humans in cultural settings.

Sadly, all four of these fundamental features are conspicuously absent from Prentice Hall's World Cultures.

This book suffers from many serious flaws, and perhaps the most significant is its ill-conceived structure: World Cultures appears to be a compilation of material drawn from other textbooks -- material that originally was produced for other purposes. The book's organization is driven by physical geography, rather than by anthropology or by any other discipline that might have provided an explicit framework for studying culture, and the bulk of the text is deployed in geographic units corresponding to continents or parts of continents. These units are unwieldy and do not provide an appropriate basis for a survey of human cultures.

Apart from the material that is explicitly geographic, most of the information in World Cultures has evidently been drawn from world-history books. It seems to have been thrown in as filler, because little of it is directly related to the study of cultures. Indeed, what this book brings to my mind is an image of "blowsheets" -- those loose sheets of advertising material that you often find in magazines. They are blown randomly into the magazines by compressed air.

Please don't misunderstand me when I say that this book fails because its organization is geographic. Understanding such geographic concepts as region, place, movement and interactions between people and their physical surroundings is fundamental to understanding human activities. Natural resources, climate, topography and other physical parameters obviously affect human existence. World Cultures, however, emphasizes the physical features of various regions while telling very little about the ways in which specific cultures have adapted to specific places. Information about ecological relationships is largely absent.

The ecology of human life depends not only on environmental parameters but also on cultural endowment: People interact with their environment in ways that are influenced by the people's history and by the knowledge, beliefs, perceptions, values, customs and techniques that they have inherited from their progenitors and predecessors. In other words, there is a strong relation between culture and history. That relation is hard to detect in World Cultures, however. The historical material in this book emphasizes nation-states and the development of empires, rarely according any attention to any culture's origins or to its development over time. Much of this material is thin gruel, and the "mentioning" problem -- which so many textbook critics properly deride -- is clearly in evidence. On page 30, for example, a paragraph of only four sentences spans the time from early civilizations to 1300 A.D. (And on the same page, the reader is treated to an incredible anachronism -- a headline saying "Changing World Powers.")

As might be expected in a textbook based on bits of history and physical geography, World Cultures suffers from the absence of any reasonably coherent idea of what the word culture means. Indeed, the writers' notion of culture seems trivial, as in their treatment of "Canadian Culture" (pages 537 and 538). Their first paragraph refers to Canadian painters. No names are mentioned, and no examples of the painters' work are shown. Next, two paragraphs on literature, with three titles and the names of three authors. No example of any author's work is quoted. Next, a paragraph on performing arts. No names or titles are cited, but the reader is assured that "Toronto and Montreal are major centers for the performing arts." Finally, sports: Ice hockey, anyone?

That is not an isolated case. The book consistently fails to deal with any culture in any depth.

In a textbook devoted to the study of cultures, I would expect a comprehensive, accurate treatment of material culture and technology. Prentice Hall's text fails again.

Technology is, arguably, the most important aspect of culture. At the very least, technology provides essential clues for understanding how a specific culture functions. What kinds of tools, machines and workplaces does the culture deem necessary? (And how does the culture define necessity?) What values are embodied in those tools and machines and workplaces? Why do some cultures adopt specific technologies while other cultures reject them? Who benefits from a particular technology, and who does not? These questions suggest some of the important connections between technology and culture as a whole.

World Cultures does include some material on technology, and there are 29 references to technology in the book's index. But as often as not, technology is treated in a way that gives several false impressions -- that technology has developed in a linear, continually progressive way; that technology has developed uniformly across all cultures; and that it is unrelated to other cultural features, such as beliefs and values.

On page 30, for example, in a discussion of cultural diffusion, the Prentice Hall writers imply that the wheel was invented only once. Then they say, "Gradually, the knowledge of the wheel spread around the globe, changing cultures everywhere." But this obscures significant variations across cultures. Some pre-Columbian Mesoamericans certainly understood the principle of the wheel, and they put wheels on their toys and religious objects, but they didn't make any wheeled vehicles. These people lived in dense forests on rugged terrain, and they had no draft animals, so wheeled vehicles would probably have provided little or no adaptive advantage. On the other hand, the plains Indians of North America seem to have been quite unaware of the wheel until it was introduced by Europeans -- and even then, the plains Indians did not develop a wheel-based transportation technology.

Another example: On page 33 the text correctly tells that Europeans adopted two Chinese inventions -- gunpowder and the magnetic compass -- but it doesn't explain that the Europeans used these items for new purposes, very much different from the purposes that the Chinese had favored. This was due, in large part, to differences between the two peoples' values and world-views. Prentice Hall's writers have ignored an ideal chance to explore the connection between values, technology and behavior.

The writers' general conception of technology is objectionable, for they seem to regard it as something that is always good and can only grow progressively better. On page 45, for example, they say this about "Technology and the future":

People are turning to science to solve global problems. You will read in later chapters about the efforts of scientists to develop new food crops, combat diseases, and repair environmental damage. Some advances bring progress and make life easier for millions. They also promote cultural change.

One does not have to be a Luddite to say, "Whoa, it's not so simple. All new technologies involve costs and trade-offs, and a lot of them make losers as well as winners."

A final example, taken from page 694, shows that the writers hold an uninformed, simple-minded notion of technology and of technology's role in culture:

Cooperation among European nations led to advances in science and technology. In the 1960s, for example, Britain and France worked together to develop a supersonic jet transport. They built the Concorde, a passenger airplane that could fly twice the speed of sound.

The writers don't tell what happened in the United States, though the case is highly instructive. In the 1960s, our federal government promoted the idea of building a supersonic transport (SST) that, like the Concorde, would serve chiefly as a symbol of national prestige, rather than as a practical form of transportation. Boeing and Lockheed produced designs, but the project was vigorously opposed by citizens who objected to the federal subsidies that the SST would have required, and who predicted that the plane would cause substantial environmental degradation. As a result, the project was killed. Clearly, the SST's opponents did not see the SST as an "advance," and their views and actions reflected some important cultural values. The Prentice Hall writers do not seem to understand any of this. They again have ignored an excellent opportunity to show how values and technology interact.

It seems obvious that a textbook titled World Cultures should help students learn about cultures and cultural affairs, but Prentice Hall's textbook does not do this. I suggest that Prentice Hall has forsaken truth, because I believe that World Cultures is woefully inadequate for the purpose that its title implies. This isn't to say that the book is absolutely bereft of virtues, for some of the special features include interesting and meritorious material. An example is the feature on page 154, which links African art with the European "cubist" movement. In most of the book, however, such material is notably absent.

This Confused Book Lacks
Any Clear Idea of Culture

Charles B. Paul

Prentice Hall's World Cultures seems to be a kind of spinoff from World History: Patterns of Civilization, another Prentice Hall text. The affinity between the two books is evident, though World Cultures omits large chunks of the material that appeared in World History, paraphrases other parts, adds some new sections (particularly about patterns of life and the modern world), and comes up with a kind of survey of some of the world's peoples.

World Cultures offers eight units. Unit 1 is an introduction, while the others deal sequentially with regions: Africa; South Asia; Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania; East Asia; Latin America and Canada; the Middle East; and finally "Europe and the Former Soviet Union." Each regional unit has sections on geography, on historical and cultural matters, and on some issues that confront the region today.

The writers introduce the term culture on page 13, where they define that word as "all the things that make up a people's entire way of life." This is roughly similar to the seventh definition of culture given in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary -- "the customs, beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious or social group."

Throughout the body of the book, the writers imply a one-to-one correspondence between a culture and a social group, but they never make clear how such a social group is designated. Is a culture the same as a nation-state? No, since the book singles out Korea and Japan as nation-states that are unusual because (the book says) their societies are culturally homogeneous. On page 377, "Korea is a homogeneous society -- that is, the people share a common ethnic and cultural background." And on page 391: "Japan is a homogeneous society. The people speak the same language and share the same culture. Unlike most nations around the world, Japan has almost no ethnic minorities."

What do the writers mean by that reference to "almost no ethnic minorities"? What is the maximum number of "ethnic minorities" that a society or a nation-state can have without losing its "homogeneous" status? Couldn't just one minority, if it were culturally distinct, suffice to keep the nation-state from being "homogeneous"? In any case, Japan is not a state in which all the people "speak the same language and share the same culture," if only because the Ainu -- the indigenous people of Hokkaido -- have a culture of their own. To be sure, the Japanese have tried to suppress expressions of that culture, but the culture still persists. Prentice Hall's writers mention the Ainu as victims of prejudice (page 392) but do not describe them in cultural terms.

If a culture is not the same as a nation-state, is a culture equivalent to a group of people who have a common religion or a common language? No. Latin Americans are preponderantly Roman Catholics, and most of them speak a Romance language, but they differ from one another in other cultural characteristics that reflect ancestry and social class. The inhabitants of the Middle East are preponderantly Muslims, but Muslims are divided into Sunnis and Shiites, and their other cultural characteristics are highly diverse.

Is a culture then equivalent to an ethnic group? The book's remarks on homogenous societies (quoted above) imply that culture and ethnicity can be distinguished from each other. But on page 22 the text defines ethnocentrism as a tendency of "most people" to "judge other cultures by the standards of their own culture." That seems to say that culture and ethnic identity are the same thing.

Given the book's nebulous ideas about what a culture may be, it is no wonder that the organization of the text is based not on cultures but on regions. The writers imply that each region has its overarching culture, but this approach proves to be procrustean, as we see from the abundance of qualified phrases like "most people," "in many countries," "in some societies," "in many other places," "depending on where they live," and so on. The text repeatedly shows that, within a given region, differences and exceptions seem to outnumber similarities. Take languages, for example. We read that Western Europe has "dozens of languages" (see page 643), Indonesia has more than 200 languages and dialects (page 289), and India has more than 700 (page 169). It seems futile, then, to treat Western Europe or Indonesia or India as a single cultural unit.

The first region that the book considers is Africa. This is a poor choice, because Africa is so diverse. It contains four climate zones, five principal regions and 54 nation-states, and Africans speak more than 1,000 languages. Furthermore, African social and political structures are pervaded by tribalism. This phenomenon is not mentioned anywhere in Prentice Hall's text, but it is a powerful force in African life, as we have learned from recent events in Somalia, South Africa, Rwanda and Burundi. To cap it all, Africa north of the Sahara has a double heritage: Physically it is a part of Africa, but in terms of language and religion it is a part of the Near East. For all these reasons, Prentice Hall's writers would have shown better sense if they had begun their survey of the world by looking at Latin America, a region that can be described and comprehended more easily because it displays much less diversity of language, religion and history.

A Strong Impression

One of the strongest impressions that one gets from reading World Cultures is that, for all of us, culture is shaped by numerous groups at various levels of complexity, from the family and the peer group to the nation-state and the population of an entire region.

Another impression is that cultures change over time. In almost every culture, tradition has to contend with continual infusions of modernity. This is superbly illustrated by the case of the Iban people of the "remote interior of the island of Borneo" (page 258). They live by hunting and gathering, yet they wear "baseball caps and T-shirts with pictures of American rock stars," and their homes have plastic chairs and pink linoleum floors.

The book is impressive in its passages about the impact of Confucius on traditional Chinese society, the causes of today's Islamic fundamentalism, the effects of bubonic plague in Europe during the Middle Ages, the appeal that Mao's brand of Communism held for many Chinese in the 1940s, and the rigid class structure seen in most countries of Latin America. The writers also do well in describing African resistance to European imperialism, and in presenting conflicting views of the Persian Gulf War.

There is a noteworthy account of the slave trade's disruptive effects upon some parts of Africa, but I must point out that this account is flawed by a serious discrepancy. On page 94 we read that, during some (unspecified) 400 years, the Atlantic slave trade "may [sic!] have caused the deaths of as many as 20 or 30 million Africans." There is a big difference between 20 million and 30 million, and the estimate seems even less reliable when we see, on page 96, that "Statistics about the number of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas are very rough estimates." That caveat is appended to a graph showing that -- in the period 1551 to 1850 (only 300 years) -- the number of slaves shipped across the Atlantic was between 9 and 9.5 million. Either the Atlantic trade caused the deaths of more people than were actually transported, or the tally of transported slaves does not include slaves who died!

I must also note some of the factual errors that appear in World Cultures. The Ten Commandments don't "urge people to treat one another with justice, love, and respect" (page 564), although other passages in the Old Testament do contain such ideas. Many of the "new beliefs" attributed to Jesus (on page 565) were not new, for they had already been preached by Hebrew prophets. The book's definitions of Ashkenazim and Sephardim are wrong (page 618) -- the Ashkenazim actually are Jews from eastern and central Europe, while the Sephardim are Jews from Mediterranean countries outside of Israel. Van Gogh was a Postimpressionist painter, not an Impressionist (page 702). The non-Slavic groups living in the Balkans include both Greeks and Turks as well as Romanians and Albanians (page 725). And the book fails to tell that the Serbs who "sought independence" (page 725) were granted autonomy, in a truncated Serbia, by the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

The writers understand, correctly, that natural science (as distinct from technology) is a European invention, and the book's unit about Europe includes a passage that outlines the emergence of science in the 1500s and 1600s. But the notion of "the scientific method" given in this book is the same one that appeared in Prentice Hall's World History, and it is simply wrong. Once again, the Prentice Hall writers wrongly claim that mathematics and experimentation play central roles in all the sciences. Once again they ignore the nature and function of hypotheses. And though World History had the merit of introducing two of the greatest figures in the history of science -- Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein -- World Cultures ignores both of them.

Flawed Efforts

Each section about a region or a major nation-state ends with some remarks on literature and the arts. The writers have good intentions, but their efforts are badly flawed in three ways. First, literature and art are never defined. Second, the writers merely give helter-skelter glimpses at numerous artistic mediums and styles -- some native and some imported, some traditional and some modern, some popular and some elite. Third, the text is sometimes no more than a list. Thus a passage about Latin American dances (page 518) mentions the tango, bossa nova, samba, lambada, calypso, merengue and salsa, though the passage has only 80 words or so. Nor will the student be enlightened by Prentice Hall's glance at Western European music (on pages 702 and 703): The writers recite the names of composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, and they mention the titles of three Italian operas. But what were the operas about? The writers do not tell.

The World Cultures writers can be complimented for their depictions of "Patterns of Life" in various geographic settings and their attempts to show the confluence of tradition and modernity in various societies. I must withhold approval, however, until the book is revised: The writers must provide better definitions of essential terms (such as culture and cultural), must correct factual errors, must totally revamp the sections on the arts and sciences, and must replace listings with thoughtful analyses. They must also change the book's title, because this book is not about cultures at all. It is a book of generalizations, often naive and untenable, about regions.

It's Phony and Vicious,
but It's Funny Anyway

William J. Bennetta

World Cultures offers us a lot of notable items. For example, it tells about China's emperor Shi Huangdi, who built the Great Wall. Later it tells about Charlemagne, who reunited much of the Western Roman Empire. And on page 569 it tells of Muhammad: "One day, Muhammad had a vision. In the vision, God spoke to him through the angel Gabriel. . . . The words the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad became part of the Koran, the holy book of Islam."

Yes! World Cultures presents Muhammad's "vision" and his talk with Gabriel as matters of fact. The writers delude students by setting out an Islamic religious doctrine as if it were historical information, just like information about the Great Wall or about Charlemagne's decrees.

This is one of various cases in which the writers employ falsity and distortion and misrepresentation to promote sectarian religion and to endorse specific religious beliefs. No responsible person would ever consider using this book in any public school. (And if, somehow, the book actually got into a public-school classroom, parents would have good reason to file a suit based on the First Amendment.) I shall tell more about the book's preaching after I discuss some other matters.

To grasp what World Cultures is, you must know what it is not. It is not a book about cultures. As far as I can see, it fails to give an account of any culture anywhere. The Prentice Hall writers seem not to know what cultures are or what the term culture means, and they obviously have had no contact with cultural anthropology. Their chief skills seem to lie in the realms of pandering and sloganeering.

If this isn't a book about cultures, then what is it? It's apparently a device that Prentice Hall wants to use for extracting money from unwary educators in the State of New York, where a state syllabus declares that high-school students should take a course dealing with "other nations and their cultures." (The book's opening pages list 30 "authors" and other alleged contributors, of whom sixteen are identified as New Yorkers.)

Here is how, I infer, the book was created: The writers took an old geography book, discarded many of its geographic passages, replaced them with assorted bits taken from old history books, then sprinkled the resulting product with some decorative sentences that include the word "culture." I can't imagine that the job took more than a few days. History-book snippets make up much of the text of World Cultures, though a lot of them lack any stated relation to culture, and some of them are fictitious.

Certain aspects of World Cultures are especially interesting to me:

At this point, you may think that I'm writing a review of another depressing, fake book. Not quite. World Cultures is a fake, but it is far from depressing. It is hilarious. The writing is so disjointed and inept, the pandering is so awkward, and the racism is so crude and ponderous that the book is a "laff riot" (if I may use a phrase seen in movie advertising). I doubt that anyone who actually reads it will take it seriously, given that we have so many fine sources of real information about cultures -- sources that include knowledgeable books, newspapers like The New York Times, and journals such as Natural History, Geo, Smithsonian and Scientific American, as well as PBS programs and BBC broadcasts.

Now let's share some laughs:

The section about "Stone Age People" (pages 27 and 28) has all the educational value of, say, a Flintstones cartoon. The writers evidently imagine that the term Stone Age means a unique period of time, that this period occurred long ago, that all "Stone Age people" lived during this one period, and that they all became farmers and decided to live in permanent communities. In fact, however, Stone Age denotes not a chronological period but a technological period: the period before the advent of extractive metallurgy. That technological period may correspond to a specific span of time for a specific people at a specific place, but only an ignoramus would suppose that all peoples passed simultaneously through a single, global Stone Age. Stone Age cultures have persisted into recent times -- recall, for example, that most North American Indian societies had only Stone Age technology at the time when Europeans started to colonize this continent -- and Stone Age cultures still exist today in various places. Prentice Hall's writers evidently have no idea of this.

For an especially ludicrous and entertaining venture in racism, turn to page 308 and the book's account of the "cultures" of Oceania (i.e., Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, taken together):

Living on widely scattered islands, the many peoples of Oceania developed their own distinct and complex cultures. Religious and artistic traditions differed throughout the vast region, and people spoke hundreds of different languages. The peoples of Polynesia seem to have had contact with South American cultures. From South Americans, apparently, they learned to grow potatoes.
This is followed by two paragraphs on "Impact of Europeans." We read that Europeans started colonizing the Oceanian islands in the 1700s, that European missionaries "convinced many people to reject their own traditions," that Europeans "forced local people to grow cash crops," et cetera. And that's it for the Oceanians. If you'd like to know anything about those "distinct and complex cultures" or about those "religions and artistic traditions," you're out of luck.

What we have here is a racist double-whammy. As far as Prentice Hall is concerned, the Oceanians are so contemptible that their cultures don't merit any description whatsoever. All that the student needs to know about Oceanians is that they have been manipulated cruelly by white men.

Another comically clumsy exercise in racism turns up on page 673, which is given to an article on the "Evils of Child Labor." The joke here is that the article tells only about child labor instituted by Europeans: namely, child labor in England during the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Neither on page 673 nor anywhere else do Prentice Hall's racists tell how the use of child labor in factories persists starkly today, in places such as India, Pakistan and Mexico.

The "historical" treatment of slavery melds Victimism with racial pandering, and it is loaded with laughs. The writers make absurd statements, omit context, and omit crucial historical comparisons. They also lead students to believe that large-scale slave-trading didn't exist in Africa until it was introduced by Europeans, and that racism was unique to "whites in Europe and the Americas." When the writers tell about the use of African slaves in the New World, they augment their fictions with fake demography. (See "A Nasty Bit of Fake Demography" in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1993, page 7.)

The writers routinely ignore religions or dismiss them in a few words, making clear that most peoples' religions aren't worth knowing about. On the other hand, the writers give substantial space to advertising and boosting Islam and Christianity. The treatment of those two religions is blatantly promotional and deceptive, becoming funny as the writers resort to word-tricks, ludicrous evasions and double-talk. I've already told how they present the story of Muhammad's "vision" as if it were fact. Their effort on behalf of Christianity includes a similar stunt, as they endorse a "vision" that plays a prominent role in the Mexican variety of Roman Catholicism. (See "The Miracle Mongers.")

The lesser follies in World Cultures give continual amusement. For example, we see that the Bantu tongues arose from a language that nobody spoke (huh?), and that this is comparable to the link between the Romance languages and Latin (what?). We see too that European opera was a phenomenon of "the 1800s." Let me note that Mozart (yes, the Mozart who created Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, among other things) lived and died before the 1800s even began! And let me list some other opera-composers that Prentice Hall's fakers have somehow missed: Monteverdi (who died in 1643), Lully (1687), Gay (1732), Pergolesi (1736), Bononcini (1747), Handel (1759), J.C. Bach (1782) and Gluck (1787).

This leads us to the best joke of all. It's not in the book but in Prentice Hall's 1994 catalogue, which says that World Cultures provides a narrative "based on up-to-date research." I ask: Research into what?

James R. Giese is the executive director of the Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., in Boulder, Colorado. He has directed various teacher-education and curriculum-development projects sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the federal Department of Justice.

Charles Paul, a specialist in cultural history, is a professor of humanities, emeritus, from San Jose State University. He has published scholarly articles on literature and music, and he has written a book, Science and Immortality, about the science and the scientists of 18th-century France.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


In the years since these reviews were written, Prentice Hall has issued several "new" versions of World Cultures. All of them are practically identical with the 1993 version. They have retained virtually all of the 1993 version's fake "facts," conceptual defects and racist fantasies, and they have bolstered Prentice Hall's reputation as a crooked company that knowingly disseminates falsehoods and disinformation in schoolbooks. To find reviews of these later versions of World Cultures, consult our Index List.


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