from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1996

Reviewing a high-school book in geography

Glencoe World Geography:
A Physical and Cultural Approach

1995. 786 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-822995-9.
Glencoe Division, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company,
936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.

Replacing Real Geography
with Fluff and Happy-Talk

Paul F. Thomas
William J. Bennetta

Lord William Rees-Mogg, who is a dean of the British royalist press and a former editor of The Times, allegedly has advocated the idea of returning the masses to a state of ignorance, so that they can be more readily governed. The governing would be done by a small elite who would possess a monopoly on useful and accurate information.

If that description of his sentiments is accurate, Lord Rees-Mogg would probably welcome schoolbooks like the 1995 version of Glencoe World Geography.

In its 1989 and 1992 versions, Glencoe World Geography was a superior product that received favorable appraisals in The Textbook Letter. The 1995 version differs greatly from its two predecessors, and nearly all of the differences are for the worse. Glencoe World Geography now has slogans instead of concepts, feel-good fluff instead of information, and vacant mentionings instead of geographic analysis. The pretty, poorly captioned illustrations beg in vain to play a pedagogic role, and the "cultural" emphasis promised in the book's subtitle is nowhere to be seen. What masquerades as "cultural" material in this book is actually a mixture of disinformation, boosterism and happy-talk. In sum, Glencoe World Geography seems to have undergone an extensive "dumbing down."

Many Puzzles

The book has eleven units -- an initial unit called "Looking at the World," then ten units that purport to tell about regions. The ten regions are "The United States and Canada," "Latin America," "Europe," "Russia and the Eurasian Republics," "North Africa and Southwest Asia," "Africa South of the Sahara," "South Asia," "East Asia," "Southeast Asia" and "Australia, Oceania, and Antarctica." The writers don't explain how they have chosen and named the regions, and some of their choices defy understanding.

Look at how they have handled northern Africa. The previous version of Glencoe World Geography had a unit on "North Africa and the Middle East"; but in the new version there is no Middle East, and the writers conjure a region called "North Africa and Southwest Asia." Why? Is this supposed to have something to do with the fact that many of the countries in North Africa or Southwest Asia are strongholds of Islam? Are these writers using "North Africa and Southwest Asia" to designate the Islamic world? No, they are not -- in their introductory spread about the "cultural geography" of "North Africa and Southwest Asia," they say nothing at all about Islam. (This is something of an achievement in the art of fluffery. To introduce the "cultural geography" of North Africa without acknowledging Islam isn't easy!)

Whatever it may mean, "North Africa and Southwest Asia" can't designate the Islamic world, because the Islamic world extends into black Africa, southern Asia and southeastern Asia, embracing such Islamic countries as Sudan, Pakistan and Indonesia. If there is any reason for linking North Africa with Southwest Asia, that reason remains a mystery. There is, however, a good reason why North Africa should not be lumped with Southwest Asia: North Africa was more extensively colonized by Europeans, during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the cultural influence of the Europeans has been much stronger there than in Southwest Asia.

There are other puzzles. For example, Western Europe and Eastern Europe have melted into a single region called "Europe," though Glencoe's writers don't seem to know where this region lies. In the "Reference Atlas" at the front of the book, Europe extends from Iceland and Iberia to the Urals, and it includes all of Belarus, all of Ukraine, and a big chunk of Russia. But in the unit titled "Europe," later in the book, Europe excludes Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, all of which show up in the unit about another invented region: "Russia and the Eurasian Republics." Just how that region was contrived is a puzzle indeed. Is it supposed to be a surrogate for the defunct Soviet Union? If so, it should include Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania -- but it doesn't.

We also must ask what the writers are trying to gain by using the term Eurasian in a foolish and misleading way, as if it meant central-Asian. Norway, Italy and Korea are just as Eurasian as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are. And why would anyone lump all the countries of central Asia with Russia? Physically and culturally, many of the central Asian countries have closer affinities to the Middle East than to Russia. Maybe the writers do not know this, or maybe they have had to ignore it because they have abolished the Middle East.

Now observe what these writers have done to the New World. In the 1992 version of Glencoe World Geography, Unit 3 had the title "Latin America and the Caribbean" -- which rightly indicated that Latin America and the Caribbean region are two separate entities. In the 1995 book, Unit 3 deals with the same territory, but the unit's title is simply "Latin America." Glencoe's writers are pretending that all the countries of the Caribbean are "Latin," though this is wrong.

The title "Latin America" also draws our attention to this puzzle: If the writers refer to the New World's great, southern cultural region as "Latin America," why do they call the New World's great, northern cultural region "The United States and Canada," instead of calling it AngloAmerica? Are they trying to hide the fact that the United States and Canada are cultural and political descendants of England, just as most of the South American states are cultural and political descendants of Spain and Portugal?

We could continue in this way for some time. Though the book's subtitle advertises a "cultural approach," this is not borne out by the book's organization.

Candy and Confetti

How about the book's content? That is hard to describe because it is hard to find. Glencoe's writers have loaded hundreds of pages with candy and confetti, but they evidently have striven to minimize the occurrence of real and coherent information. Let us cite some passages that show how this approach is reflected in the unit about "The United States and Canada":

The Glencoe writers' devotion to gloss and fluffery pervades the rest of the book, too. Here are some examples drawn from other units:

"Ethnic" Antics

Just as the book's organization fails to show a "cultural approach," the book's text is virtually devoid of cultural information. Again and again, Glencoe's writers refer to cultures and "ethnic groups" while failing to describe any of them. Here, for example, is their entire treatment of cultural and "ethnic" matters in China:

About 94 percent of the people of China belong to the group, or nationality, called the Han. They live mainly in eastern and southern China. The rest of China's more than 1.2 billion people belong to about 50 different ethnic groups. The non-Chinese peoples live mainly in the far north and west. Although they live in China, non-Chinese peoples such as the Tibetans have long cultural histories and traditions of their own. [page 551]

Would you like to know what cultural traits distinguish the Han from all those other ethnic groups? Or would you like to know how some of the other ethnic groups differ from each other? Are you wondering what may be meant by "cultural histories" of "non- Chinese peoples"? You will not find answers in Glencoe World Geography.

Nor will you find any clear idea of what ethnic groups may be. Glencoe's writers use the terms ethnic and ethnic group with abandon, and they dream up "ethnic groups" to suit their own convenience.

As it happens, three definitions of ethnic group are given in Glencoe's book. Two of the definitions are useless, but the one on page 305 is acceptable: Here we read that an ethnic group is a group which "has its own unique heritage, customs, beliefs, and language." Now please turn the page. On page 306 the writers say that "Of all the ethnic groups in Russia and the Eurasian republics, the Slavs are most numerous." That is false. The Slavs do not constitute an ethnic group, even by the definition given on page 305. The term Slav really refers to a family of languages, and the individual languages within this family are associated with specific groups of people. The various groups not only speak different tongues but also have different histories, practice different customs, and follow different religions; in other words, they are discrete ethnic groups. Glencoe's writers, though, erase all these groups and pretend that there is a unitary "ethnic group" called "the Slavs."

An especially blatant abuse of the term ethnic can be seen in the two charts on page 108. The chart of "Ethnic Origins of Americans" shows that 80.3 percent of the people in the United States have an "ethnic origin" called "White." But this, of course, is a racial designation; it is not the name of a group that "has its own unique heritage, customs, beliefs, and language." Now look at the second chart, titled "Ethnic Origins of Canadians." According to this chart, Canada has groups called "British," "Native American," "Chinese," "French" and "Multiple origin or other" -- but there are not any Canadians whose "ethnic origin" is "White"! We infer that the Glencoe writers are deliberately trying to confuse the student and to promote the muddling of race with nationality or with cultural affinity. (To learn about another case in which Glencoe writers have apparently tried to promote the conflation of race with culture, see the January-February issue of TTL, page 12.)

Silly Stereotypes

On those occasions when the writers purport to give some description of the people belonging to an "ethnic group" or some other assemblage, they usually exude silly stereotypes.

On page 273, for instance, they homogenize all the people of Europe:

Europeans also share a respect for nature. People who live in densely populated areas value an opportunity to get away from urban areas and enjoy the natural landscape. . . . Although their environment has been modified greatly by humans, Europeans want to preserve their pleasing landscapes for future generations.

That is just feel-good fluff. If all those Europeans are uniformly devoted to saving landscapes, why are they continually fighting land-use battles? Why do we continually read about European political confrontations precipitated by "development" projects that would destroy woodlands or beaches? Why do we read about controversies that arise when European governments launch road-building schemes that require the destruction of heaths or forests? Obviously, such projects and schemes would never be proposed (let alone being supported by anyone) if all Europeans were the stereotypical landscape-lovers depicted by the writers of Glencoe World Geography.

A more serious case of stereotyping -- one that entails a gross distortion of history -- appears in the unit about the region called "Russia and the Eurasian Republics." Here is what the writers say, on page 318, about that region's Jews:

Over many centuries the Jews in the region suffered from prejudice and discrimination. In czarist Russia Jews were allowed to settle only certain areas, and they were often the target of organized persecution and massacres known as pogroms. This persecution continued under the Soviets and became particularly brutal when the invading Nazis shipped hundreds of thousands of Jews to death camps.

As vague as it is, this material succeeds in conveying the notion that the Jews of "the region" were nothing but downtrodden victims, both before and after the genesis of the Soviet Union.

The facts are otherwise. For example: In the pre-Soviet days, prosperous Jews -- especially in Ukraine and Poland -- often served as administrators of the prevailing feudal system. That system tended to keep the peasants (along with less favored Jews) in a state of poverty. To learn about it, see Murray Jay Rosman's book The Lords' Jews: Magnates and Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth During the Eighteenth Century, published in 1990 by Harvard University's Center for Jewish Studies (Cambridge, Massachusetts).

When the Bolsheviks deposed the czar and seized Russia, Jews attained high office in the new regime from its very beginning. Four of the five members of the first Politburo -- Lenin, Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev -- were Jewish or partly Jewish. Lazar Kaganovitch, who ran Stalin's genocidal collectivization of Ukraine, was a Jew. So was Lavrenti Beria, who served as Stalin's commissar for internal affairs (i.e., chief of the Soviet terror apparatus) and was Stalin's deputy premier for 15 years. Moreover, the prominence of Jews in the Soviet hierarchy was widely recognized in the international press, and the fact that Jewish functionaries took part in the policing or terrorizing or deporting of local populations is a matter of record. See, for example, War Crimes: Report of the War Crimes Inquiry to the British Parliament, issued in 1989 by Her Majesty's Stationery Office (London); and Stalin Against the Jews, by Arkady Vaksberg, published in 1995 by Vintage Books (New York City). Vaksberg, a prominent Jewish intellectual, tells that the same Stalin who precipitated the deaths of many Jews also appointed Jews to command eleven of the twelve administrative divisions of the GULAG system.

Religious Mysteries

As a part of their avoidance of cultural matters, the writers avoid saying anything substantive about religions. Although they continually make allusions to religions, their prose is vague, evasive or absolutely empty. Recall, for example, their vacant stuff about Protestantism in Latin America, or their fuzzy line about nameless "religious holidays" celebrated by nameless religious groups in the United States and Canada.

Sometimes some religions have names but don't have much else. They appear to exist only as labels, unassociated with any particular beliefs or doctrines or rites that might distinguish them from other religions. Even when the Glencoe writers expend six paragraphs in depicting Southwest Asia as "The Birthplace of Three Major Religions," the religions themselves (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are not described:

Judaism merits a single paragraph -- just enough to project the false implication that the ancient Hebrews were the original and only inventors of monotheism.

Christianity gets two paragraphs and is alleged to be based upon the "beliefs" and "teachings" of someone named Jesus. But there is no hint of when this Jesus may have lived, and there is no hint of what his "teachings" may have been. We learn only that they led to a disastrous decline in his ratings -- "Because the teachings of Jesus made him unpopular with many people, he was tried and crucified." So much for him; and let that be a lesson to anyone who may risk being unpopular.

Islam, too, gets two paragraphs. The adherents of Islam are said to follow "rules," but there is no suggestion of what the rules are. Instead, the writers turn to boosterism: They present some gratuitous stuff about the secular achievements of Muslims, declaring that Muslims made unspecified and undescribed "contributions" to the natural sciences, medicine and mathematics. This does nothing to elucidate the nature, tenets or practices of Islam.

The "Three Major Religions" material is all the more absurd because the writers don't tell how those religions are related! They don't give any survey of the texts and doctrines that Christianity absorbed from Judaism. Nor do they tell that Muhammad borrowed from both Judaism and Christianity, though he explicitly rejected Christianity's three-in-one god, explicitly rejected the doctrine of Jesus's divinity, and explicitly denounced the Christian belief that Jesus had been crucified.

All in all, the Glencoe writers' account of the "Three Major Religions" looks like one major joke.

So does their passage about a "religious revival" in Russia. They give no description of what really is happening, and they badly mislead the student. [See "What About the Wizards and Witches?" on page 5 of this issue.]

Another observation seems appropriate here: As far as we can see, Glencoe World Geography fails to provide any explanation of theocracy, any description of a theocratic culture, or any account of how a state religion pervades life in a country like Iran or Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the book's index has no entry for theocracy or state religion or religious police, or even for Salman Rushdie. A student can read the whole book without learning how some states impose religions onto their populations, dispensing persecution and punishment to dissenters. He can read the whole book without learning that religious freedom and religious toleration -- principles that are common in the industrialized West -- are alien to some other parts of the world.

The writers' failure to deal with theocracy may reflect their specific refusal to deal with religion, or it may reflect their overall commitment to sanitizing almost everything and everyone. Some of their clean-up work is amazing to see. The African slave trade seems to have been operated by no one at all. The Ainu, apparently, were not overrun and subjugated by anyone; they simply decided to move north. The drug trade, a powerful force in various national and regional economies of the real world, appears not to exist in the Glencoe world. Genocides in modern Africa? Or mass exterminations in Cambodia? Glencoe hasn't heard of them. And of course, all those states in North Africa and Southwest Asia have "decided upon" their own forms of government.

Barbra's Pedigree

While Glencoe's writers have spurned cultural geography and have avoided describing and analyzing cultures, they have larded their book with occasional pseudocultural articles marked "Linking World Cultures" or "Geographic Connection." With few exceptions, the articles are trivial and sanitary (or even saccharine), and they have little or no connection to the main text.

Certain of these pieces are downright weird, such as the "Linking World Cultures" article called "Jewish Contributions to the United States" (page 375). Here we encounter gushy, sentimental material about such famous American Jews as Joseph Pulitzer, Aaron Copland and Barbra Streisand. What makes the article weird is its location: It has been put into the chapter called "The Cultural Geography of North Africa and Southwest Asia"! The writers evidently want the student to think that all "Jewish Americans" have come directly from the Levant and represent a unitary Levantine culture or race. We acquire the impression that Barbra Streisand, for example, has an exclusively Levantine cultural heritage and is a product of an exclusively Jewish lineage that reaches back to the time of Solomon. One might as well say that Jacques Chirac has an exclusively Gallic ancestry that goes back to the days of Vercingetorix, or that Shaquille O'Neal has a string of exclusively Irish ancestors reaching back to Brian Boru!

An Adulterated Virtue

We now turn to the book's one virtue. Amid all the fluff and sanitized silliness that form the bulk of Glencoe World Geography, one finds a generally good treatment of environmental affairs and resource issues. One cannot read this book without seeing that we humans have repeatedly allowed greed and stupidity to govern our approach to resources, that we now are paying for some of our follies, and that we shall pay even more dearly as the years go on. These are themes that recur throughout the book, in expositions of overpopulation and of topics such as the lack of fresh water in the Middle East, the destruction of forests in Thailand and in the United States, and the destruction of fisheries.

Yet even here we notice difficulties, because the book sometimes contradicts itself by providing both fluff and sound information about the same topic. To illustrate this, we'll quote two passages about North American marine fisheries. The first passage is on pages 96 and 97:

The United States and Canada have many important natural resources. . . . The waters of the shallow continental shelf along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico have large amounts of fish and shellfish. The waters along the Pacific coastline also have a plentiful supply of fish.

That is claptrap. The stocks that once supported North America's biggest marine fisheries have now been destroyed or ruinously depleted, and the governments of the United States and Canada have restricted or closed various fisheries to save them from annihilation. Even the renowned cod stocks of the Grand Banks have been fished to the brink of commercial extinction, and Canada has shut that fishery down.

Now read this passage from page 141:

By the mid-1900s, fishing by ships from many nations had depleted the fish population [around the Grand Banks]. As a result, Canada imposed a fishery conservation zone covering a 200- nautical-mile (370-km) band around its coast. This zone, however, was not wide enough to include the Grand Banks. Fishing off the eastern coast, especially by foreign fleets, has continued even as the number of fish decline.

In 1992, the Canadian government, concerned about dwindling populations of cod in the waters, lowered cod-fishing quotas by 35 percent and announced the temporary closing of Newfoundland's east coast cod fishery. These actions caused the largest layoff in Canadian history, putting 20,000 people out of work. . . .

A combination of pollution and over-fishing also has damaged the fishing industry in the United States. In one recent seven-year period, the total . . . catch declined by more than 25 percent.

Waste in the fishing industry also is partly responsible for the depletion of fish populations. Technologically advanced trawlers sweep the oceans for fish, often catching unwanted fish species, marine mammals, and birds. This dead bycatch, as it is called, is simply tossed overboard. . .

This second passage is outdated, and more fisheries have been closed in the time since it was written. But even so, the passage tells some truth. We have to wonder how it ever got into the same textbook with that nonsense about "plentiful" fish.

We conclude by noting that Glencoe, in an apparent attempt to exploit an ugly fad, has equipped Glencoe World Geography with a 46-page Spanish addendum. This comprises a glosario (but no index) and tiny puntos of interest, derived from the book's texto. Will this fimo make Glencoe's libro comprehensible to alguien who no puede to read English? No, but a fad is a fad, and Glencoe evidently presumes that a lot of textbook-buyers are muy tontos.

Paul F. Thomas is both a professor of geography and a professor of education at the University of Victoria (in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada). His research interests include the political geography of Eastern Europe. He regularly reviews geography books for The Textbook Letter.

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.


Pointer return to top
Pointer go to Home Page
Pointer read the Index List, which shows all the textbooks, curriculum manuals,
     videos and other items that are considered on this Web site
Pointer contact William J. Bennetta by e-mail