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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1996

Reviewing a high-school book in geography

Geography: People and Places in a Changing World
1995. 734 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-314-02905-2.
The West Publishing Company, P.O. Box 64526, St. Paul, Minnesota 55164.

This Good Book Is Marred
by Russophilic Propaganda

Paul F. Thomas

The 1995 version of West Publishing's Geography replaces the version that was dated in 1990. The newer book incorporates some major revisions while retaining the earlier book's strengths: a dynamic treatment of textual material, a mature pedagogical tone (enhanced by the use of headlines that are substantive rather than glitzy), a credible skills-building program, and the posing of review questions that elicit higher-order thinking [see the note below]. The new book is badly marred, however, by a refusal to deal honestly with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. West's writers pretend that the Soviet Union still exists, and they appear to promote the revival of Russian imperialism.

Some of the most conspicuous improvements in the 1995 book involve cartography. A number of the small, skimpy maps that appeared in the 1990 book have been replaced by full-bodied spreads which have visual appeal and convey more information. One of the new maps, "World Climates" (pages 58-59), is especially praiseworthy because it uses the Köppen system for designating climatic regions; this system, a rarity in high-school geography books, achieves much greater precision than is possible with other schemes. The 1995 book also has new thematic maps that incorporate the dimension of time. A prime example is the map on page 74, which predicts how the global distribution of rainfall will change as global warming continues.

Many of the regional maps have been enlarged (and have benefited from improvements in the use of colors and textures), and the book continues to provide historical maps and graphs that depict important economic developments, such as the growth of railroads, coal production and iron production during the years 1850 through 1910.

Unfortunately, some of the best maps are inadequately exploited, from a pedagogical standpoint. For example, a fine map of land use in Europe has a legend but no caption; it cries out for a caption that would pose some questions about what the map shows. There are many end-of-chapter questions that require the student to inspect maps, but most of the questions are very simple: The student merely finds capital cities, or determines which countries border on some other country, or estimates the distance between one place and another. I see no attempt to teach the student how to use maps in constructing correlations, such as correlations between terrain and land use, or correlations between land use and population density.

Puzzling "Culture Regions"

Like the 1990 version, the 1995 book has twelve units -- an opening unit about geographic themes and concepts, then eleven units in which the globe is divided into eleven "world culture" regions." Nine regions carry the same names that they had in the 1990 book: "Western Europe," "The United States and Canada," "The Pacific World," "Latin America," "Africa South of the Sahara," "The Middle East and North Africa," "China," "South Asia" and "Southeast Asia." On the other hand, the region that was called "Japan and Korea" in the 1990 book is now labeled "Japan and the Two Koreas," and the region that previously was called "The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe" is now "The Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe."

There are some obvious puzzles here. For example:

Such difficulties, however, are small in comparison with the book's attempt to perpetuate the Soviet Union and to promote a completely imaginary "culture region" called "The Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe." This matter merits some serious elaboration.

Pretense and Fiction

The largest empire of modern times was the one forged by Russia, and most of that empire was eventually incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a pseudofederation of diverse states which shared only one significant feature: They all were ruled from the Kremlin. The Soviet Union was neither a physical unit nor a cultural unit, because it spanned many physical regions and many discrete cultural regions. But it certainly was a political unit, and the writers of geography texts used this as a justification for lumping all the Soviet states together and treating them as a single geographic entity, even in those books that purported to view the world in terms of physical or cultural realms.

That justification evaporated when the Soviet Union disintegrated, in 1991, and the textbook-writers were left with some serious work to do: They would have to discard their old chapters about the Soviet Union, adopt new perspectives, and formulate a rational way of dealing with the various cultural regions that formerly had lain under Russian rule.

Most textbook-writers, however, have refused to do those things. Instead, they have invented a convenient fiction: They pretend that the Soviet Union still exists but is now called the Commonwealth of Independent States. They employ that fiction as an excuse for recycling their old material about the Soviet Union and Russia, with minimal changes in wording here and there.

This is the tactic used by the writers of West's Geography. West's book leads the student to believe that the Commonwealth of Independent States is the Soviet Union operating under a new name, and it even says outright that the CIS was "formerly the Soviet Union" (page 173).

In reality, the CIS is just a sort of Eurasian discussion group. Russia, no doubt, views the CIS as a device for furthering the reconstitution of the Russian empire, but several of the states that belonged to that empire have refused to join the CIS or have refused to grant legal recognition to it, and the CIS has no status as anything but a talk show. It is not a physical unit or region, it is not a cultural unit or region, and it is not a political unit or region. It is not a state, either, and it has no citizens. West's book mentions "commonwealth citizens" (page 193), but that is a conceptual absurdity.

The 1990 version of West's book had a unit called "The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe," comprising chapters 6, 7 and 8. In the 1995 version, chapters 6, 7 and 8 form a unit called "The Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe." The new chapter 6 (titled "The Lands and Peoples of the Commonwealth of Independent States") is devoted almost entirely to Russia and is much the same as the old chapter 6 ("Russia Becomes the Soviet Union"). The new Chapter 7 ("The Commonwealth of Independent States in Transition") is rather different from the old chapter 7 ("The Soviet Union Today"), but the writers again dwell on Russia and retain a Russian point of view. For example, they seem to regard Ukraine not as a real nation but as a den of "ethnic" upstarts who perversely resented being subjugated. The new chapter 8 ("Eastern Europe") is very much the same as the old chapter 8 ("Eastern Europe"). The material about agriculture has been retouched, and the last section of text has been revised to give Eastern Europe a "hopeful" future instead of an "uncertain" one.

In the chapters that supposedly deal with the CIS, the heavy emphasis on Russia and on Russian perspectives creates the impression that West Publishing has devised its own foreign policy, founded on a naive Russophilia. West's writers seem to have decided that the Russian empire should be rebuilt, and they seem to have embraced Russia's old imperial principle: States that border upon Russia are to be regarded as Russian property.

Good and Not-So-Good

The unit on "The Middle East and North Africa" is good. The writers make a real effort to encapsulate the history and culture of this Islamic realm, paying close attention to the relations between humans and environmental factors. In chapter 22, the section titled "The Arabs and the Israelis" is even-handed and avoids partisanship, while the section about "Petroleum Politics in the Arabian-Persian Gulf" strives for balance and shows that politics in the Gulf area is affected by the interests of the United States and the other industrialized nations.

The unit called "Africa South of the Sahara" is a mixed bag. The writers offer excellent discussions of shifting cultivation, problems of adaptation, and islands of development, but they do not explore correlations between environmental factors (such as physique, climate, vegetation and soils) and the distribution of African societies. They could have done this easily, and they could have shown why Africa's large, organized societies have been associated with the savannas and the steppes. The African deserts are inhospitable to the development of complex societies, of course, but so are the rain forests (which classically have been called "regions of debilitation"). Because traditional foods, fibers and fabrics decay quickly in the hot, wet climates of the rain forests, the accumulation of wealth is impossible; the leached soils of rain-forest areas cannot support any extensive, permanent agricultural settlements; and parasites and pathogens abound.

As a whole, the unit is pedestrian. It sets out the things that most high-school geography books say about SubSaharan Africa nowadays, overemphasizing the past while paying insufficient attention to recent times and to the present. There is no reference to the great African genocides that have been carried out during the past 30 years or so, there is no account of how the flow of foreign aid to SubSaharan countries dwindled after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the writers don't ask the student to consider how SubSaharan countries could try to free themselves from poverty and dependency.

Like the 1990 version, this new version of Geography is accompanied by a workbook; and once again, the workbook is bad. The worksheets are loaded with what and where questions, presented in a fill-in-the-blanks format, but there are very few why questions. The entire workbook has only fourteen maps (one of which has been printed upside-down), and there is no significant attempt to lead the student toward correlational reasoning or geographic synthesis.

All told, the 1995 version of Geography is a good textbook, even if the unit about SubSaharan Africa is undistinguished. The unit about the CIS and Eastern Europe, however, cannot be used. It is, in effect, a lot of Russophilic propaganda -- and though it would do Boris Yeltsin proud, it has no educational value.

A Generally Good Book,
Harmed by Carelessness

Jerry R. Williams

As a cultural geographer whose professional interests have centered on geographic education, I think that West Publishing's Geography is long overdue. Here is a book whose text is well written and generally makes sense. This, in itself, means that the book is a welcome addition to our stock of instructional materials.

Geography is filled with colorful photographs and other illustrations that relate well to the text and are attractively presented, and there are many useful feature articles. About 50 of these are "Discovering" articles, which seek to illuminate basic geographic concepts by examining selected topics -- e.g., "What Is a Region?," "Super Dike: The Dutch Battle the Sea," "Life on a Slovakian Collective Farm," "Where Our Water Supply Is Running Out," "The Vertical Layering of Tropical Rain Forests," "Mountains Change Climate" and "Drought Is Shattering Ways of Living in the Sahel."

After an initial unit about Earth and the principles of geography, the book presents eleven units about "world culture regions." The unit on "Japan and the Two Koreas" is typical and exemplifies how each regional unit is structured:

An opening spread gives an overview of the region and a list of objectives that the student should achieve in studying the unit. This is followed by three more introductory items: a page of "Keys to Knowing Japan and the Two Koreas" (comprising ten important points that the student should look for as the unit unfolds), a "Miniatlas" (providing a political map, a physical map and a population-density map of the region), and an "At a Glance" table (which lists the countries that lie within the region and shows each country's capital city, area in square miles, population, and so on).

The body of the unit consists of two chapters, well organized and pleasingly presented. The first deals with Japan, blending current geography with historical material about Japan's emergence as a modern industrialized country, its period of expansion and imperialism, and its defeat in World War 2. The second chapter describes today's Japan and emphasizes urbanization, industrial prowess, agriculture, and the problems that Japan faces as a technological society. This chapter also has five pages about the Korean Peninsula, with the emphasis on some social and economic differences between "North Korea: Communism" and "South Korea: Capitalism." Included within the two chapters are regional maps, beautiful photographs, and focus articles that tell how location influenced Japan's history, how samurai played a role in Japan's early industrialization, how Japan's reliance on rice has influenced Japan's culture, and how Japan hopes to retain its status as an economic power. This is cultural geography that should hold the student's attention.

A False "Region"

While this textbook keeps faith with its People and Places subtitle by emphasizing cultural matters, I do question West Publishing's promotional claim that "each unit is devoted to one world culture region." Dividing the world into cultural regions is always a challenge, but the writers of West's textbook have missed a great opportunity, and have done a real disservice to students, by presenting a "culture region" named "The Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe." Virtually the only thing that the countries in this region have in common is their former political status: Each country was once a part of, or a satellite of, the Soviet Union. That status, we need to remember, was maintained by force. The many peoples of these countries don't speak the same language, don't share a religion, don't recognize the same government, and don't adhere to the same cultural practices. How can anyone justify continuing to study these countries as if they all were parts of a single cultural region? Every day, events taking place in that quarter of the world emphasize that these countries are not parts of a single cultural region.

The breakup of the Soviet Union is already history to the high-school audience for which this textbook was written, and a geography book has to deal with the world of today, not of yesterday! It would make much more sense to consider all of Europe -- both east and west -- as one region, and to consider Russia as a region unto itself. This would also make it easier to deal with the former Soviet states which, realistically, belong to southwest Asia. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have more in common, culturally, with Afghanistan and even with Iran than with Russia or eastern Europe. (In the present book, Afghanistan and Iran -- despite their greater cultural affinities to southwest Asia -- are treated as parts of "The Middle East and North Africa.")

Confusion and Carelessness

The writers occasionally overstate their objectives or expectations. For example, I seriously doubt that completing Unit 1 will equip the students to "Describe Earth's varied landforms and types of vegetation, and learn how they are developing and changing" or to "Understand that climate, . . . varies because of topography, latitude, and circulation systems in the atmosphere and oceans." Likewise, I question whether studying the maps on pages 42 and 43 will really enable students to "understand the relationship between [tectonic] plates, earthquakes, and volcanic activity."

Some other unsatisfactory aspects of West's book involve the careless use of words and the needless invention of new terms. An example is the writers' coining of "the Environmental Transformation" as a replacement for the Agricultural Revolution, a long-accepted and widely used term that signifies all the changes associated with the domestication of plants and animals. Inventing a new name for the Agricultural Revolution serves no educational purpose. I believe that it will serve chiefly as a source of confusion, especially for students who have read (or will read) history books in which the Agricultural Revolution retains its accepted name.

On page 28 the writers say that "Relative location is the position of a location on Earth's surface in relation to other locations." To say that location is the position of a location is not instructive, and the writers should know better than to "define" something in terms of itself.

On page 97 the writers name Venezuela as one of Latin America's "beacons of progress." That is hard to justify, given the deteriorating social, economic and political conditions that have characterized Venezuela during the past decade. Later in the book, on page 447, the writers themselves describe Venezuela's plight: "Because the country's standard of living depends more on oil than on its productive capacity, Venezuela is facing low economic growth, lower standards of living, high levels of inflation and unemployment, and, with the two coups it experienced in 1992, the real threat of political instability."

On page 204 an article about environmental degradation in the former Soviet Union is titled "Death by Ecology: The Poisoning of the Soviet Empire." What does "death by ecology" mean? Ecology, as any dictionary will disclose, is a branch of science dealing with the relationships of organisms to their environments. How could the pursuit of this science cause the poisoning of the Soviet empire?

On page 400 the student reads about forest dwellers who practice "shifting cultivation," in which they "plant crops in areas cleared of trees and then abandon these fields after several years." Later, on page 454, the student encounters "slash-and-burn agriculture," defined as "the practice of clearing and burning trees off the land which is then cultivated for a short period of time." The writers do not tell that "shifting cultivation" and "slash-and-burn agriculture" are two names for the same thing.

There are also some cases of carelessness in the creation of illustrations and captions. In the map on page 133, for example, the legend shows a symbol for "major railroad," but that symbol does not coincide with the one that is used on the map itself. On page 337 a photograph shows a scene that is obviously urban, but the caption refers to "a rural area of Honshu"; this can only cause confusion about the meanings of urban and rural, two basic geographic terms. On page 444 a map shows South America divided into three regions called "Brazil," "Andes Mountains" and "Middle-Latitude South," the first of which includes most of Venezuela. In the text, however, Venezuela is said to be one of the "Andean Nations" (page 446).

These errors are minor, and they can easily be cleared up. They should not be allowed to persist and to detract from what is essentially a good cultural-geography textbook.

Making "Busy Work"

The reference material at the back of the book includes a glossary, a "Pronunciation Guide" to place names, and a list of "Spanish Equivalencies" for geographic terms. The "Pronunciation Guide" is a valuable addition. The Spanish-equivalents list is clearly meant to cater to prospective customers in Texas, California and the southwestern states, but it seems to lack any educational rationale. If high-school students do not understand English well enough to read the rest of the book, what will they gain from a four-page Spanish addendum? It is a poor substitute for learning the language of this country.

Apparently it is not enough for a company to produce just a textbook, so West has also published a workbook to accompany Geography. The best thing that can be said about the workbook is that its attractive cover matches the cover of the textbook. Inside, the workbook is merely a black-and-white compilation of activity sheets that generate some "busy work" by asking students to fill blanks and to copy answers directly from the textbook's chapters. No original thought is required, and there is no indication that West's writers made any attempt to develop challenging questions about the textbook's geographic content. There is such a sharp contrast between the good textbook and the very poor workbook that I find it difficult to believe that these two products are dedicated to the same educational goals.


Note      The 1990 book was titled Geography: Our Changing World. It was the subject of reviews that ran in TTL for May-June 1990, under these headlines: "An Attractive, Useful Book That Needs Supplementing" and "A Geography Book of Variable Quality."   [return to text]



Paul F. Thomas is a professional geographer, a specialist in geography education, and a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria (in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada).

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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