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from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1995

Reviewing a high-school book in social studies

Global Insights: People and Cultures
1994. 944 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-822689-5. Glencoe Division,
Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company, 936 Eastwind Drive,
Westerville, Ohio 43081. (This company is a division of McGraw-Hill, Inc.)

This Confused, Trivial Book
Doesn't Live Up to Its Title

James R. Giese

Global Insights: People and Cultures reminds us of how social-studies educators -- and therefore social-studies textbooks -- are addicted to covering material at the expense of depth and understanding.

This book has 51 chapters, divided into eight units that nominally deal with regions: "Africa" (seven chapters), "China" (seven), "Japan" (six), "India" (six), "Latin America" (six), "Middle East" (six), "Commonwealth of Independent States" (seven), and "Europe" (six). In every unit, the first chapter purports to describe the basic geography of the region in question. The next chapter (or sometimes more) is usually, but not always, a thumbnail sketch of the region's history. Then come chapters that usually, but not always, describe more recent developments in certain parts of the region.

Since some of the units deal with single countries while others purportedly tell about entire continents, the coverage is uneven (to say the least). There are obvious difficulties in trying to treat Africa, for example, as if it were a single cultural entity. Perhaps some generalizations can be made, but any understanding of the people and cultures of Africa would require close attention to many particulars -- particulars of art, language, demography, social structures, religious beliefs, and technology, among many other things. The most striking feature of Global Insights is that it is remarkably short on particulars.

In a book that claims to offer "insights" about "people and cultures" I would expect to find systematic cross-cultural comparisons, undergirded by concepts drawn from the social sciences, the humanities, and other disciplines. Global Insights doesn't deliver. Although an introductory note (on page xvi) lists a number of concepts and says that they will be developed in the book's text, I have not found that any significant development is actually carried out. To be sure, some topics seem to recur in various units (as indicated by the recurrence of words such as "Cities," "Countryside," "Family," "Women" and "Religion" in headlines), but the passages about those topics are usually so short and so vacuous that cross-cultural comparisons are difficult or impossible.

Confusion About Sources

Global Insights includes many extended excerpts from both primary and secondary sources. Indeed, I estimate that nearly a half of the book's text consists of such excerpts. At least some of them are engaging, but they are used in ways that create a number of problems.

The first problem is that excerpts are often used not to embellish or support a narrative but to replace a narrative. Instead of describing and analyzing a given topic in a coherent way, the writers simply present a long quotation from one source or another, as if this could serve as a respectable exposition of the topic at hand. The second problem is that these writers fail to distinguish primary sources from secondary ones. The manner in which quotations are introduced and cited often has the effect of making all of them appear to be primary accounts, but many of them are actually secondary. This defect may reflect the writers' own failure to grasp what a primary source is. As if to emphasize their confusion about this, they provide a sidebar on "Interpreting Primary Sources" (page 231), in which they say:

Primary sources can bring events to life and reveal their emotional impact on people. Suppose you find two news stories about an earthquake in western China. One gives statistics on deaths and injuries; the other is a victim's account of searching the rubble to find remains of her home and children. The second story, a primary source, will enable you to feel the human loss more keenly. However, because primary sources reflect the views of individuals, they often miss "the big picture."

As is obvious, the writers do not know what primary source means. They evidently think that a journalist's report of deaths and injuries caused by an earthquake can't be a primary source, but they are wrong. They also seem to think that a primary source is defined or distinguished by its emotional content or by its effects on the emotions of the reader, but they are wrong again. Any account provided by a person who has witnessed or participated in an event is a primary source, no matter who the person is and no matter whether the account is emotional or sober. The writers would doubtless be surprised to learn that documents such as mariners' logs and scientists' laboratory notebooks are primary sources, although such documents don't often include flights of emotion.

Roughly a half of the text of Global Insights, then, consists of quotations whose nature and significance often seem obscure. Moreover, the writers don't lead students to deal with the material in any critical way. I haven't found any instance in which the writers juxtapose two or more quotations about the same event, then ask students to compare them. I see no instance in which they require students to compare a primary account of an event with some secondary accounts. I see no instance in which they encourage students to discriminate among accounts that may reflect different biases or may have different degrees of reliability. And I find no instance in which they ask the students to compare two or more quotations that deal with the same topic but reflect the perspectives of persons representing different cultures. In general, the writers merely ask the students to glean through isolated quotations in search of information that can be used for answering end-of-section questions. As a result, the use of quotations in Global Insights seems to promote the very effect that the writers have warned against -- that is, losing sight of "the big picture."

Foolish Handling of Technology

In a review of an earlier "cultures" text, I've made the case that any examination of a culture must include careful attention to technology. At the very least, technology provides the essential clues for understanding how a culture functions, and there are important connections between technology and the culture as a whole.

The treatment of technology in Global Insights is spotty and foolish. In the book's index, the only entry for "technology" tells me to "See science and technology." When I do so, I find references to only eight passages of text -- and when I read the text passages themselves, I find that most of them deal with "science" or "scientists," usually in superficial or false ways.

On pages 162 and 163, for example, a fleeting passage about "scientists" in ancient China has a strange list of inventions that the Chinese allegedly "gave the world," and the list includes the mechanical clock. In fact, though, the mechanical clock was created in Europe, probably in the 13th century. The Chinese did not learn of mechanical timekeeping until, in the later years of the 16th century, Europeans presented elaborate clocks, as gifts, to Chinese dignitaries. For an account of this history, see David S. Landes's book Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, which was published in 1983 by the Belknap Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts).

The same passage in Global Insights asserts that ancient "Chinese doctors" found that malaria, among other ailments, "could be eased or cured by using ginseng and other roots." Students will probably wonder why malaria remains a widespread, highly debilitating disease if it can be cured with ginseng. The truth is that ginseng cannot cure malaria or anything else. See "Leading Students into the Clutches of Quacks," in The Textbook Letter, July-August 1994.

The science of modern times is briefly mentioned on pages 870 and 871. The writers make some vague, unexplained generalizations, and then they intone:

As the 1900s progressed, so did the number of advances. Foremost among these was the theory of relativity proposed by German physicist Albert Einstein. The theory shattered the view of the universe that had been held for centuries.

The view "that had been held for centuries" was, of course, the one founded on Newtonian mechanics. Unfortunately, that view is never mentioned anywhere in the book, let alone being discussed in depth. The writers do not even mention Newton's name. As a result, students won't have any idea of what was "shattered" by Einstein's theory, and they won't be able to comprehend the material. Nor will they find any support for the claim that Einstein's theory is "foremost" among all of the scientific advances of the 20th century.

The writers' treatment of technology is generally just as superficial as their treatment of science. For example, their entire discussion of the Industrial Revolution (on pages 801 through 804) consists of six brief paragraphs of narrative and two quotations. The text hints that technology enhanced the political power of the West, but it is very short on explaining how this occurred. It avers that technology raised European standards of living, but again it doesn't tell how. As the passage ends, the student reads that "Before long, the Revolution had spread to the world beyond Europe, bringing with it social, political, intellectual, and economic change" -- but the student gets no sense of when these changes happened (if they happened at all), or what they entailed, or how they may have differed from place to place.

There are also instances in which the text's treatment of science or technology is inherently ethnocentric. On page 634, for example: "The achievements of the Middle East [up to the year 1000] laid the foundation for the development of science in the West." That is better than ignoring the influence of the Middle East entirely, but it nevertheless suggests that knowing about Middle Eastern scholarship is important only because such scholarship eventually became useful to Europeans.

Another case, somewhat more offensive, occurs on page 870. The writers say that technology "increased Western status in the eyes of many non-Westerners," and then they quote from a memoir by a Sudanese Arab, educated in the West, who waxes eloquent about "Miracle after miracle, and all invented by Europeans." Some non-Westerners doubtless reacted to European technology as that Arab did, but to present only a single, positive reaction is a distortion. It overlooks many other reactions -- such as fear, hostility, indifference -- that other non-Westerners felt. These reactions, of course, depended on time, on circumstances, on the cultural values and social positions of the persons involved, and on the specific technologies that the persons confronted. Surely an indigenous African or Asian who found himself on the wrong end of a European's rapid-firing gun would not have felt compelled to admire the European's enhanced "status." (On the other hand, the section titled "Technology and the Global Community" in the book's epilogue is well balanced. It discusses changes that recently have been fomented by technology, and it points to ethical and other choices that people face because of technological innovations.)

Global Insights presumably represents Glencoe's conception of the kind of book which social-studies educators want to buy, and that conception may be accurate. As long as educators remain addicted to merely skimming through topics, they will continue to get textbooks that cover a lot but uncover very little -- books that are long on mentioning but short on efforts to convey the intellectual significance of the material packed between their covers.

An Outdated, Unreliable Text
by Some Uninformed Writers

Jerry R. Williams

The challenge in writing a high-school book about cultures in our changing world is to make the book interesting, attractive and intellectually sound without letting it become so big that it will overwhelm the reader. The writers of Glencoe's Global Insights: People and Cultures were not up to that task. With 887 pages of text (plus 57 more pages that present an atlas, a glossary and other amendments), this book will daunt many students by its sheer size.

Global Insights attempts to cover eight regions, some of which are nation-states, some of which are not: Africa, China, Japan, India, Latin America, the Middle East, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Europe. Given that broad scope, it isn't surprising that much of the material in this book is superficial and disjointed. Glencoe's writers might have done better to leave out Japan and Europe, which are substantially different from the six other regions. This would have enabled the writers to consider the six others in greater depth and make common themes more obvious.

In surveying the regions that they have chosen, Glencoe's writers look at a varied assortment of things (e.g., language, religion, music, art, values, education) as manifested in particular cultures. The writers do not, however, examine cultures in any consistent way, or in terms of a consistent set of cultural components, and this makes it impossible for the reader to formulate accurate comparisons. Moreover, there is no introduction that describes or defines the components of culture, so it will be up to students and teachers to figure out what the universals of culture may be.

The copyright page indicates that this book was originally published in 1980, was revised in 1987, and now has been revised again. In preparing the present version, dated in 1994, Glencoe's writers seem to have concentrated on updating the unit about the Commonwealth of Independent States. They have only superficially touched on developments in other parts of the world, and the book therefore retains a lot of outdated information and obsolete perspectives.

Such obsolescence is seen immediately in the book's opening unit, "Africa." In the chapter about South Africa, for example, we find that Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, but we see nothing more about him. Likewise, the African National Congress disappears from sight after entering into a 1991 compact that was supposed to put an end to fighting among various black organizations. There is no mention of peaceful but radical changes that have reshaped South Africa since then, or of the country's new political subdivisions. (A sidebar on page 67 refers to the referendum of March 1992, but the book says nothing about the referendum's impact.) South Africa is trying to use democratic processes to bring about a pervasive restructuring of its society. The writers of Global Insights should have provided a serious discussion of this case, presenting information that was current at the time when the book was printed. They have not done so.

Renouncing Geography

Along with obsolescence, the "Africa" unit shows a confused and uninformed approach to geography. The same defect, in fact, recurs in all the book's units, and I find this particularly disappointing. In their introductory material, the writers give three pages to "Geographic Themes," setting out the five themes of geography and creating the impression that geography will be a major focus of the book. "The geography of a region," the writers say, "not only includes its physical landscape, natural resources and climate but also the people who have settled there and their distinctive way of life."

That is true, but it is not reflected in Global Insights. Having paid lip service to geography, the writers show only a very distorted style of geography in the rest of their text, and they seem unaware that we cannot understand a people or a culture unless we know about the local geography.

In the unit about Africa, the writers' renunciation of geography is especially obvious. I have problems with a unit that proposes to provide "insights" into the peoples and cultures of Africa but then ignores all the peoples who live in the Sahara or anywhere north of it. There is absolutely no acknowledgment of the Arab peoples who inhabit the countries lying along Africa's Mediterranean coast, and there is nothing about their Muslim religion! Though the Islamic cultures of North Africa show some similarities to the Islamic cultures of the Middle East, this hardly justifies ignoring a third of a continent!

I also have problems with the ways in which Glencoe uses (or fails to use) maps. The two-page introduction to the unit about Africa has a table of basic information, under the title "At a Glance," and the items in the table include "Major Mountain Ranges" and "Major Rivers." But the unit has no map that shows where these major geographic features are, and there is no discussion of why they may be important. (Granted, there is a full-page map of Africa in the atlas at the back of the book, but I doubt that many students will be inspired to interrupt their reading of the text, turn to the atlas, and start scouring the map of Africa to find the Mitumba Mountains, the Limpopo River or Lake Chad.)

Page 9 has a "Vegetation Areas" map of Africa, but it is so small that students will not be able to match vegetation zones to individual countries. That same map shows the words "Great Rift Valley," but nowhere in the book is there anything to tell why the Great Rift Valley may be important. Page 18 has a miniature map of "Food Supply" that shows only two things: brown regions of "Famine/food shortage" and symbols indicating "Areas of war." What is the point? There is no text telling how Africa's post-colonial wars have inhibited food-production, thus contributing to widespread hunger.

The chapter about Nigeria has only one map, so small that it is virtually useless. And while the map's caption mentions "diversity of ethnic groups," the map shows no such thing. Where is the map showing how Nigeria is divided into a Muslim northeast and a Christian-and-animist southwest? Where is the map showing that traditional pastoral activities predominate in the northeast while activities related to petroleum and to tropical products prevail in the coastal southwest? Such maps would illustrate cultural differences that have led to a bitter contest for control of Nigeria's government. Aren't culture and cultural "insights" the things that this book is supposed to be about?

Misleading the Student

Unit 5, "Latin America," tries to cover a huge region without focusing on any particular country. This is a serious error of judgment. Latin America extends from 30º North latitude to 55º South, and it displays dazzling diversities. For example, it includes Uruguay (a middle-latitude country inhabited by people of European heritage), Guatemala (a tropical country whose population consists almost exclusively of American Indians and mestizos), Haiti (a bankrupt country that occupies half of a tropical island and is inhabited by blacks and mulattoes), and Brazil (a huge country that is Latin America's economic powerhouse and that has a population comprising, whites, blacks, mulattoes, American Indians and Asians). Trying to homogenize all of that diversity can only result in gross generalizations that have little meaning and can badly mislead the student.

The unit on Latin America provides further evidence that Glencoe's writers have little understanding of geography or of the role that geography plays in the study of cultures. The "Geography" section (pages 446 and 447) includes four maps, each of which spans 85 degrees of latitude but measures only 2.9 x 3 inches. The map called "Landforms" mixes legitimate categories, such as "plains" and "plateaus," with extraneous ones, such as "forests" and "rain forests/jungles." (Since when are forests and jungles considered to be landforms?) On the same map, "plains" replace the rain-forest region western Brazil, eastern Peru, Ecuador, and southeastern Colombia, but the adjacent "Climate" map shows that same region to be "Wet Tropical." Which map are we to believe? A graph of "Ethnic Diversity in Latin America" (on page 454) shows the population of Brazil to be 8% "African," with no mulattoes -- but the text on page 459 says that "more than half" of Brazil's people "have African ancestors." Again, what are we to believe?

And what are we to make of the graph's assertion that 36% of Brazil's people belong to a mysterious category called "Other," or the graph's claim that Brazil has no Asians? That claim does not agree with the text on page 460, which speaks of Brazilians who are "descendants of the 250,000 Japanese who immigrated to Brazil originally to work on the coffee plantations." In fact, the Brazilian population does include descendants of Japanese immigrants, but the Glencoe account of them is wrong. A little research would have shown that the Japanese immigration to Brazil arose from a venture aimed at establishing truck farming in agricultural cooperatives in the state of São Paulo and elsewhere. This venture, sponsored partly by the Japanese government, had nothing to do with coffee plantations.

There are numerous other cases of error and self-contradiction in Glencoe's unit about Latin America, along with the use of poorly chosen, misleading material. For example, in the "At a Glance" table (on the unit's opening spread) Mexico City is cited as having 11.1 million people, and São Paulo is said to have 10.1 million. Later, however, we read that "Greater Mexico City" has 20.2 million and São Paulo has 18.1 million. There is no attempt to explain the discrepancies or even to tell whether Mexico City and "Greater Mexico City" are the same or different things.

On page 451, mulattoes are defined as "persons with one black and one white parent." Oh, that life were so simple!

A section on "The State of Education" in Latin America starts with some sweeping generalizations, then jumps to a specific, misleading example involving Puerto Rico. We see a statement by a Puerto Rican teacher who says, "Everyone has the right to a public school education, and elementary and intermediate schooling are obligatory." What is not pointed out is that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States of America, and that the situation in Puerto Rico does not prevail in most of Latin America. Similarly, Glencoe's writers describe the daily life of a Colombian high-school student (page 478), but they do not indicate that this student represents the upper class. Few lower-class Colombians make it to high school.

There are similar misconstructions and omissions in the rest of the book's units as well -- especially the omission of maps that would illustrate essential information about each region's physical, demographic and cultural features.

Global Insights is filled with colorful, interesting photographs of people, places and things, both historical and contemporary, and students are bound to find these illustrations stimulating and informative. The use of excerpts from various sources is another positive aspect of this book (although the quotations in certain chapters are so lengthy that they overwhelm the narrative).

Those positive elements, however, do not compensate for the writers' fundamental mistakes. By making their book too long, by failing to make it current, and by failing to pay any real attention to geography, they have failed to meet the challenge of writing a book about peoples and cultures.


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.

Jerry R. Williams, a specialist in cultural geography, is a professor in the Department of Geography at California State University, Chico. He is also a district coordinator for the California Geographic Alliance, which supports the teaching of geography in the public schools, and he has directed various teacher-education projects.

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