from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1996

Reviewing a high-school book in geography

Prentice Hall World Geography
Subtitle: A Global Perspective
1995. 812 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-802885-0.
Prentice Hall, 1 Lake Street, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey
07458. (Prentice Hall is a part of the entertainment company Viacom Inc.)

A Lazy, Light Reworking
of a Book Issued in 1993

Paul F. Thomas

The 1995 version of Prentice Hall World Geography is essentially a minor revision of an earlier revision. The earlier one, which was published in 1993 and was titled Prentice Hall World Geography (Updated Edition), incorporated Prentice Hall's attempts to mention some signal events of the early 1990s, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When I reviewed the 1993 book, I found that its formatting and organization were strong. Its content, however, was uneven in depth and sometimes inaccurate. Those observations (and most of my other comments about 1993 version) apply to the 1995 version too, because the two books are very much the same. Like the 1993, the 1995 has an introductory unit about geography, then ten units that purportedly deal with cultural regions. Each unit has the same title and the same number of pages as before, and there are few (if any) meaningful changes in the unit's text.

What, then, is new in this 1995 book? Apart from typographic changes, the most conspicuous alterations consist of rewritten headlines and subheads, revised captions, new rubrics and graphic devices, new photographs, and some changes in the book's assortment of sidebars and feature articles.

The new photographs often seem to lack any purpose beyond the creation of novelty, because Prentice Hall's designers have simply exchanged old pictures for new ones that have similar content. On page 216, for example, a photo of a small calypso band has been replaced by a photo of a larger calypso band; on page 353, a photo of two Yugoslavians in traditional dress has been replaced by a photo of one Romanian in traditional dress; and on page 537, a view of Nigeria's capital has been replaced by another view of Nigeria's capital. (One of the few cases in which a new photograph represents a real improvement occurs on page 246. The 1993 book had a picture of a horseman in a subtropical forest, but the caption spoke about "Argentina's gauchos" on the "pampas"; now there is a photo that actually shows a scene on the pampas.)

Similarly, some revisions that involve feature articles are more apparent than real. On pages 78 and 79, for instance, the case study titled "Food, Hunger, and Sustainable Agriculture" is just a lightly rewritten version of an article that appeared, under the heading "Food, Hunger, and Geography," on pages 160 and 161 of the 1993 book. On pages 116 and 117, the case study called "The Geography of the Drug Trade" shows new typography and graphic design; but in terms of content, it is much the same as an article that appeared on the same pages in the 1993 book, under the title "Fighting the Drug War." Other pieces that have been redesigned but remain essentially unchanged include "Energy, Oil, and the Middle East" (pages 500 and 501) and "India's Growing Population" (pages 606 and 607).

Some articles, however, represent significant innovation. For example, the Prentice Hall writers have extensively revised an old article about acid rain, turning it into a new case study (pages 340 and 341). They have given comparable treatment to an old article about refugees (pages 702 and 703), but the resulting case study is mushy and misleading. It also lacks the dramatic diagram, labeled "Refugees of the World," that was a part of the original article; instead, there are two photos that tell nothing about the patterns of refugee migrations.

Pages 378 and 379 carry a case study called "The Geography of Conflict in Eastern Europe," which replaces the 1993 book's text about Yugoslavia. The new article -- which focuses on the ethnic groups that have been fighting each other in the Balkans during the years since Yugoslavia fell apart -- is far from lucid. Placing the Balkans in "Eastern Europe" is unfortunate, since the Balkans belong to Mediterranean Europe. More importantly, the Balkans form the hinge between Europe and the Asian regions that once were held by the Ottoman Turks, and this helps to explain why the Balkan Slavs include many Muslims. The Muslim Slavs constitute one of the prominent ethnic factions involved in current disputes over the allocation of Balkan real estate, but Prentice Hall's article ignores them. It makes no reference whatsoever to Muslims or Islam!

Expedient Nonsense

Because the 1995 book retains the 1993 book's structure, organization and basic content, it perpetuates a lazy, untenable way of dealing with Russia and the countries that, until recently, were parts of the Russian empire. In fact, Prentice Hall's maps are so confused that the Baltic states and Ukraine are sometimes in Europe and sometimes in Asia! Russia and most of the states that Russia formerly controlled are piled into something called "Northern Eurasia," which is a puzzling hodgepodge. One never learns why this "northern" region includes Ukraine and Georgia (which are middle-latitude countries, not northern countries) while it excludes Norway, Sweden and Finland (which certainly are Eurasian and are as northern as any countries can be).

The lesson here is that Prentice Hall's writers have not tried to deal with the erstwhile Russian empire in any rational way; they have simply reused some expedient nonsense. And to make things a bit worse, they have again printed a bogus "historical" tale about the origins of the Slavs. That tale that was invented by Stalin's propagandists to justify Soviet imperialism. [See "Recycling Stalinist 'History'," in TTL, May-June 1994, page 11.]

On the positive side, I am pleased to see that the new book, like the old one, rejects political correctness when it describes the programs of genocide that the Nazis conducted during World War 2. In a welcome breach of convention, Prentice Hall's writers make clear that Jews were not unique in experiencing a Holocaust -- and they defy the custom of reserving the term Holocaust exclusively for the loss of Jewish lives. Their passage titled "The Holocaust" is included in a section about Poland, and it says, in part:

[At concentration camps in Poland] people from many nations suffered horribly or were brutally murdered, but the majority of those who lost their lives were Poles. By the war's end, roughly 6 million Poles were killed in concentration camps, about half of them Jews. This incomprehensible destruction of human life, together with the deaths of about 6 million additional Europeans in camps, has become known as the Holocaust. [page 366]

The writers are less successful when they deal with the mass emigration of European Jews to Israel. In text that has been carried forward from the 1993 book, with no significant change, they outline the origins of Zionism, cite the Balfour Declaration, and point out the British made similar, conflicting promises to both the Jews and the Arabs. But when they purport to tell about "The Creation of Israel," they evade a fundamental issue by casting it as a mere rhetorical question:

Nearly six million Jews had perished in Nazi concentration camps by the time World War II ended in 1945. Thousands of survivors had no place to go. When the world learned of the Holocaust, there was an outpouring of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

However, the Arabs made up 70 percent of Palestine's population. They were bitterly opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Why, they wondered, should they give up their land because of what the Nazis had done? [pages 453 and 454]

Why indeed? Those Arabs were in no way responsible for what had happened to Europe's Jews, yet they were required to pay the price for a succession of errors committed by Europe's great powers. Students deserve an explanation of this puzzling affair. A nice restatement of the issue, effective as a basis for classroom discussion, might be: "Why didn't the victorious Allies cut a piece out of Germany and give it to the European Jews as a homeland? Wouldn't that have been fairer than carving a piece out of the Middle East?" Geography instructors who need to refresh their knowledge of Zionism and the political evolution of the Middle East will find some good information in David Fromkin's book A Peace to End All Peace, published in 1989 by Henry Holt and Company (New York City).


High schools that are still using geography books published in 1989 or 1990, and that need to adopt a new book right away, should regard the 1995 version of Prentice Hall World Geography as a plausible candidate. As a whole, this is a well organized, user-friendly book that makes good use of themes. It has some gross faults, a few of which have been noted in this review, but most of the faults are not unique. The same or similar failures -- including the failure to deal rationally with Russia and its former empire -- occur in competing books as well.

Schools that are slready using the 1993 version of Prentice Hall World Geography do not have to consider replacing it with the 1995. Substantive differences between the two books are too few and too small.

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). He regularly reviews geography books for The Textbook Letter.


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