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from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in geography

World Geography Today
1997. 662 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-03-016802-3.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.,
1120 South Capital of Texas Highway, Austin, Texas 78746.
(This company is a division of Harcourt Brace & Company,
which is a part of Harcourt General Inc.)

Substantial Improvements
and Serious Defects

Paul F. Thomas

Holt's 1997 version of World Geography Today is the third version that I have seen. The earlier ones were dated in 1989 and 1992. The 1989 book seemed to be aimed at slow students, and Holt's writers evidently did not try to stimulate any geographic reasoning or higher-order thinking. They approached geography as if it were primarily a huge vocabulary drill. The 1992 book was called a "Revised Edition," but it was almost identical to the 1989.

[Editor's note: Two reviews of the 1989 version ran in TTL for September-October 1990. The 1992 version was reviewed in TTL for July-August 1993.]

The 1997 version, too, is labeled as a "Revised Edition," but this time the label has some meaning. World Geography Today has been overhauled, and Holt's writers and editors have attempted to rectify some of the gross deficiencies that I saw in the previous versions. They haven't always succeeded, and the 1997 book has some blemishes, but it is palpably superior to its predecessors.

The new book's pages are larger than the pages of the earlier versions, and they can accommodate 52 lines of type in a column (instead of 48). The pages also look better, because the accent colors used in headlines, captions, legends and tables are warmer and more inviting. The illustrations have greater pedagogic value because they carry better annotations and captions, and also because they are more likely to be accompanied by thoughtful questions. More importantly, the new book's pictures, diagrams and maps constitute, in their own right, a formidable pedagogic apparatus that can help students to achieve a high order of geographical reasoning in correlating environmental, cultural and historical phenomena.

Overall, the 1997 version resembles an upscale popular magazine that begs to be picked up and handled. This resemblance is reinforced by magazine-style inserts which carry such labels as "Cities of the World," "Planet Watch," "Global Connections," "One World, Many Voices" and "News from [Teenagers] Around the World." There are more than 40 of these feature articles, and they support the main text by helping to illuminate economic geography, urban geography, resource-management problems, mass culture, and political structures.

Rearranging the World

Each of the earlier versions of World Geography Today had ten major units, but the 1997 book has eleven. The first two units are titled "Geography: A View of Our World" and "People and Geography." Together they present the introductory material that now seems to be standard in all the high-school geography texts -- an overview of physical geography, then a survey of some aspects of human geography. The "People and Geography" unit includes topics that previously appeared in a unit titled "Sharing the World's Resources," which has now been dropped.

Units 3 through 11 are devoted to regions, most of which display new names. The only region whose name hasn't been changed is "The United States and Canada" -- which, in this 1997 book, is the subject of Unit 3. The region that Holt formerly called "Latin America" has become "Middle and South America" (Unit 4). "Western Europe" is now "Europe" (Unit 5). "The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe" has been transformed into "Russia and Northern Eurasia" (Unit 6). "The Middle East and North Africa" has suffered dismemberment: Its Middle Eastern component has become "Southwest Asia" (Unit 7), while its North African component has been folded into "Africa" (Unit 8). "South and East Asia" has been split into "East and Southeast Asia" (Unit 9) and "South Asia" (Unit 10). And "The Pacific World" has expanded to become "The Pacific World and Antarctica" (Unit 11).

Two of these changes are defensible in geographic terms. First, it is proper to present South Asia as a region in its own right. (Holt's older practice of lumping South Asia with East Asia was ill-conceived and lacked a geographic justification.) Second, suturing East Asia to Southeast Asia, in the new Unit 9, makes sense because East Asia and Southeast Asia have significant cultural affinities.

Holt's other translocations and renamings, though, seem to represent nothing more than the semantic manipulations by which many publishers of geography books try to produce the illusion that they are updating their material or creating new knowledge. Perhaps these maneuvers could be exploited as the basis of a new parlor game for the masses -- to be called Let's Rearrange the World! -- in which the players would try to answer questions based on Holt's new book. For example:

? -- Though countries such as Norway and Sweden are in northern Eurasia, Holt doesn't include them in the "Northern Eurasia" region. Why not?

? -- If "Central Asia" lies in "Northern Eurasia," how can it be central?

? -- If there is no Latin America, then what is the Latin-American Integration Association (page 200) trying to integrate?

? -- Why is there a realm called "The Baltic Countries and Moldova" (on page 319) when Moldova has no cultural, political or economic affinities to the Baltic republics, and isn't even contiguous with them? (And here is a 50-point-bonus question: What can you infer from the fact that the Moldovan language is simply Cyrillicized Romanian? Can it be that the Moldovans are Romanians who fell under Russian domination and were forced to adopt the Russians' Cyrillic alphabet?)

Mistakes and Misimpressions

Some of the errors of fact that marred the 1992 version have been corrected, but some others have not. In the chapter about "Pacific South America," for example, Holt's writers continue to define El Niño as "unusual weather patterns." El Niño is really a warm marine current and is one of the manifestations of a major, recurring climatic system.

Though the maps and other illustrations in the 1997 book are strong, the statistical tables tend to be thin and sometimes misleading. A prime example occurs in the 13-page table, near the back of the book, that purports to present essential information about the world's nation-states: Here we read that Russia has one major language (Russian) while Ukraine has five (Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, Polish and Hungarian). This is meaningless at best, because almost all the Ukrainians can speak Russian, no matter what other languages they may speak, and more Ukrainians can speak English than can speak Romanian, Polish or Hungarian. If we want meaningful descriptions of the Russian and Ukrainian populations -- i.e., descriptions that will help us to identify potential sources of strife and separatist impulses -- we must look not at languages but at ethnic groups.

About 20% of the inhabitants of Russia are non-Russians, and four different ethnic groups can each claim more than 1% of the population. Ukraine, in contrast, has only two ethnic groups that are politically significant: Ukrainians (about 75% of the total population) and Russians (about 20%). No other group constitutes more than 1%.

By listing languages instead of ethnic groups, Holt's writers convey false impressions -- i.e., that the Russian population is homogeneous while the Ukrainian population is a hodgepodge. This picture, which resonates with the political agenda of persons who would like to see the Soviet Union reconstituted, is reinforced on page 353 of Holt's book, where the writers say: "Nationalism is on the rise among many Ukrainians." Since Ukraine is already a nation, that assertion is absurd. Moreover, it seems to imply that Ukrainians, unlike Canadians or Americans or Israelis, aren't really entitled to have a nation-state of their own.

This exemplifies something that we see in many of today's geography texts, issued by various publishers. The writers tell that the Soviet Union collapsed, but they fail to deal competently with many of the separate states that emerged from the wreckage. They seem to doubt that these states need to be taken seriously, and they bury them in statements based on hearsay, half-baked impressions, and old misinformation. Here are three more examples, all taken from the section about Ukraine in the new World Geography Today:

Pedagogic Aspects

On the pedagogic side, the 1997 book's principal strength is the one that I already have cited -- its superior complement of pictures, diagrams and maps. Other strengths lie in the text: The writers do an improved job of addressing big ideas and issues, and of trying to elucidate patterns, instead of simply showering the student with informational confetti.

The "five themes of geography" are in evidence, but they are not really embedded in the book's structure. They merely recur, from time to time, as partial-page afterthoughts. Another pedagogic weakness is the writers' excessively fuzzy approach to the concept of critical thinking. In the end-of-chapter review sections, many questions presented under the heading "Thinking Critically" do not deserve that label, since they do not require the student to adduce evidence in support of some proposition, or to judge the quality of evidence presented by others. However, the questions generally are better than the ones that I saw in earlier versions of World Geography Today, because they at least require the student to consider alternative possibilities.

In summary: The 1997 version of World Geography Today is considerably better than the 1989 and the 1992. Holt has now recognized that world geography is more than a vocabulary exercise, and the new version presents a useful array of concepts and patterns. The book's most serious defects are ones that we see in many of today's high-school geography books: a lust for redefining and renaming "regions" in ways that are sometimes foolish, and the failure to deal competently with many of the independent nation-states that have emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


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.

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