from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1998

Report of an inquiry

Geographic Society Refuses to Tell
Why Its Name Appears on a Trashy Text

William J. Bennetta

The 1995 version of the high-school book Glencoe World Geography was a mess of fake "geography," fake "history," cheesy stereotypes and bald self-contradictions. The 1997 version -- the one that Glencoe is selling now -- is essentially the same as the 1995, but it displays two noteworthy embellishments. I described these in my review of the 1997 book, in the January-February issue of The Textbook Letter:

• Even though the 1995 version showed a professor from Texas as its sole author, and even though the 1997 version is almost the same as the 1995, Glencoe claims that the principal author of the 1997 book is the National Geographic Society!

• The teacher's edition of the 1997 version has some strange, confusing stuff about the so-called "national standards" for geography, which were issued in October 1994. I infer that this stuff has been injected to suggest that there is some link between the "national standards" and Glencoe's book -- but the book's text (which still emphasizes the five-theme scheme that we've seen in geography books during the past decade) flatly ignores the "national standards." This seems all the more significant because the groups which sponsored the "national standards" included the National Geographic Society.

Later in my review I said that I would send an inquiry to the National Geographic Society, hoping to learn whether the Society had actually been involved in the creation of Glencoe's book.

I have since done this. Here is my report:

On 9 February I spoke by telephone with David Beacom, the Society's director of education products. I identified myself as the editor of TTL, told him of my interest in the 1997 version of Glencoe World Geography, and asked him whether he knew of that book. He said that he did. I next asked whether he was aware of Glencoe's claim that the Society was the book's principal author. Yes, he said, he knew of that claim. I then told him that I had several questions about this matter, and I promised to send them to him in writing.

On 4 April I sent to Beacom, by certified mail, a letter in which I posed nine questions. Questions 1 through 4 dealt with the 1995 version of Glencoe's book, from which the 1997 version had been copied. Questions 5 through 9 dealt directly with the 1997 version:

5. Is the National Geographic Society the principal author of the 1997 version?

6. If your answer to question 5 is no, I ask this: As far as you are aware, did any employee of the National Geographic Society, functioning as a representative of the Society, contribute to the 1997 version?

7. If your answer to question 5 is no, I ask this: Has the National Geographic Society conveyed to Glencoe the right to claim that the National Geographic Society is the principal author of the 1997 version?

8. If your answer to question 5 is yes, I ask this: Does the National Geographic Society accept responsibility for the 1997 version's content?

9. If your answer to question 5 is yes, I ask that you help me to understand the discrepancy between the content of the 1997 student's edition and some promotional material in the 1997 teacher's edition:

The teacher's edition of the 1997 version includes promotional material (on pages T14 and T15) that ostensibly tries to link Glencoe World Geography with "National goals and standards in geography, published under the title Geography for Life (1994)." Yet the content of the 1997 Glencoe World Geography is conspicuously keyed not to the Geography for Life standards but to the old five-theme guidelines that were in use for years before the Geography for Life standards were issued. I find this noteworthy because the National Geographic Society is one of the organizations that purportedly were involved in creating the Geography for Life document. If your answer to question 5 is yes (i.e., that the National Geographic Society is indeed the principal author of the 1997 Glencoe World Geography), and if the National Geographic Society endorses the six-element scheme set forth in the Geography for Life standards, then why does the 1997 book retain and emphasize the old five-theme scheme instead of the newer scheme espoused in Geography for Life?

No Reply

Beacom did not respond. On 1 May I sent to him, by certified mail, a note in which I reminded him of my letter of 4 April and expressed my hope that he would answer it soon. He has made no reply whatsoever.

Glencoe World Geography is not the only schoolbook for which Glencoe is making claims that involve the Society. Other Glencoe books that display the Society's name and logo include Geography: The World and Its People and the 1999 version of World History: The Human Experience.

The Human Experience was reviewed in the March-April issue of TTL by Charles B. Paul, who wrote:

Glencoe says that the "authors" of the 1999 version are the National Geographic Society and two individuals, with the Society at the top of the list. The individuals are Mounir A. Farah and Andrea Berens Karls, who were the alleged "authors" of the 1994 version. Now they have been eclipsed by the Society. Whoever the real writers of the 1999 version may be, their principal effort has consisted of copying old material from the 1994, including numerous old mistakes. However, the 1999 book also has errors that are new.

Paul later described some of the new erroneous material, and he remarked:

One of the most shocking additions to the 1999 book is the feature article on page 522, called "Tower Physics," which is explicitly labeled as the work of the National Geographic Society. Under a picture of a "modern re-creation" of "Galileo's famous experiment from the Leaning Tower of Pisa," we read that Galileo dropped a ten-pound weight and a one-pound-weight from the Tower, and thus "demonstrated that objects of different weights fell at the same rate." That is a legend, not history, and ranks with Parson Weems's invented tale about George Washington and the cherry tree. There is no evidence that Galileo, or anyone acting under his direction, ever performed such an experiment.

I do not know the terms of the National Geographic Society's alliance with Glencoe, nor do I know whether the Society has really contributed anything to any Glencoe book. I do know, however, that the Society is allowing its name and logo to be used on trashy books that are loaded with misinformation and fakery -- books that have no place in any schoolroom. To me, this is alarming and immensely disappointing. The National Geographic Society used to be a respectable organization.

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 frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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