Logo

Different opinions about a geography text

Editor's Introduction -- Our first reviewer finds that the 1993 version of Prentice Hall World Geography is well organized but is "inadequate in its treatment of social, political and economic matters." Our second reviewer writes that Prentice Hall's text displays an "impressive" conceptual framework and is "one of the best world-geography books available."
from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1994

Reviewing a high-school book in geography

Prentice Hall World Geography
"Updated Edition," 1993. 812 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-969254-1.
Prentice Hall, 113 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632. (Prentice Hall
is a part of Paramount Communications, which is a part of Viacom Inc., one of the largest
entertainment companies in the United States.)

The Organization Is Good,
but the Content Is Spotty

Paul F. Thomas

With respect to organization and user-friendliness, the "Updated Edition" of Prentice Hall World Geography is distinctly superior to most of the world-geography texts that came on the market in 1990 or so. This book is evidently aimed at a wide range of prospective readers. Its reading level, on the whole, appears proper for high-school students, but the content seems to be more suited to grade 7 or 8. One reason for this is that the writers, in telling about particular countries, occasionally lapse into a style reminiscent of a telephone book.

After an introductory unit about the nature and content of geography, Prentice Hall World Geography offers ten units about cultural regions: the United States and Canada; Latin America; Western Europe; Eastern Europe; Northern Eurasia; the Middle East and North Africa; Africa South of the Sahara; South Asia; East Asia; and (in the final unit) the Pacific World and Antarctica.

The introductory unit, called "Physical and Human Geography," opens with a chapter that has the usual information on "the five themes of geography." This is followed by a chapter that gives a streamlined, unencumbered account of the elements of physical geography, and then by a chapter on population and culture. The unit ends with a chapter called "Resources and Land Use," which elaborates some concepts pertaining to resources and economic activity. Unfortunately, however, the link between this last chapter and the rest of the unit is tenuous at best: The writers fail to make clear that every culture embodies a particular set of responses to environmental possibilities, that land-use decisions are included among these responses, and that the possibilities offered by a given region depend (in part) on how that region is connected to others.

Curiously, the chapter on "Resources and Land Use" has a passage that tries to define three politico-economic ideologies -- capitalism, communism and socialism -- without taking advantage of the geographic groundwork that has been laid in the previous pages. Then the student is asked to explain a number of terms, including sovereignty and market economy, without having enough information to do so. Little understanding, however, can be gained by trying to discuss labels without context, as is evident if we consider the terms welfare state and socialist state. Prentice Hall's writers equate those two phrases, saying that "Socialist countries are sometimes known as 'welfare states' because they provide many social services such as housing, health care, child care, and pensions for retired workers." Yet the writers label the United States as a capitalist country (not as a welfare state or a socialist state), even though the government-sponsored social services provided in the United States are more extensive than those seen in some countries that call themselves socialist.

What is clearly missing from this book is the idea that a politico-economic ideology is itself a cultural invention -- a response to various geographic factors and, maybe, a device for legitimating resource-acquisition policies: During the Opium Wars, for example, Great Britain and the United States said that their aggressive policies and acts were ways to spread freedom and a free-market economy, while China saw those same policies and acts as expressions of imperialism. Ideology can also be the offspring of environmental necessity. Difficult environments tend to favor the rise of collectivism (as in the case of the Inuit), while a hospitable environment can support unrestrained individualism (as was true, for a long time, in California).

The ten regional units vary considerably in depth and extent. The unit about the student's home region (i.e., the United States and Canada) has 82 pages, and the unit on Latin America has 90, but the unit on Northern Eurasia (spanning the countries that once formed the Soviet Union) has only 40, and the information in this unit is thin and unreliable. Northern Eurasia is in flux, of course, and Prentice Hall may have tried to avoid printing anything that might soon become outdated and wrong. At the same time, however, the company has missed an opportunity to provide students with a framework for understanding current events in that part of the world.

The material on Africa seems thin, too, and the information about some countries is less than one can find in tourist brochures. On page 555, for example, the writers say that East Africa has three "Countries with Strategic Value" -- Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia -- but they then dismiss Ethiopia in two paragraphs and Djibouti in one, and they say nothing at all about Somalia.

In the unit about the United States and Canada, the entire discussion of Canada's "Multicultural Characteristics" (page 153) is seriously defective. It says that "most Canadians" are descendants of British or French ancestors, and it gives the impression that Canada possesses only three other significant groups of people: 25,000 Inuit, 370,000 American Indians, and 60,000 recent refugees from Southeast Asia. This obscures important facts: About a third of Canada's people are neither British nor French in origin, and millions of Canadians are the descendants of forefathers who were German, Italian or Ukrainian.

Besides being wrong about demography, the book's account of Canada's people uses bewildering terminology. The writers refer to American Indians as "Native Americans," producing this absurd result:

Inuit and Native Americans had been living in what is now Canada for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Today, most of Canada's 25,000 Inuit live in the territories and in northern areas of Newfoundland, Ontario, and Quebec. Canada has nearly 370,000 Native Americans, most of whom live on reservations.

So the writers set the Inuit apart from "Native Americans," thus denying that the Inuit are natives! This terminological mess adds extra confusion to the book's misleading notions about the Canadian population.

The formatting and organization of Prentice Hall World Geography are generally innovative and strong. At the start of each regional unit, the writers give some twenty pages to a "Regional Atlas" chapter that, despite its name, consists chiefly of text. Collectively, the "Regional Atlas" chapters contain some of the most useful information in the book. Further, this information is effectively cross-referenced to thematic maps in ways that are not commonly seen in world-geography textbooks published in the United States, and the thematic maps in the various units are supplemented by a sixteen-page atlas at the back of the book.

The "Regional Atlas" chapter in each unit includes an article titled "A Geographic View of History," which tries to add a dimension of time to the dimensions of space. Generally, these articles are fascinating and useful, introducing students to topics that they may wish to pursue in greater detail by reading books of history. For example, the writers offer good sketches of the European exploration of North America, the African slave trade, commerce on the Silk Road, and successive movements of peoples and religions into southern Asia. But one of the "Geographic View of History" articles, placed in the unit about Northern Eurasia, is misinformed and fictitious. [See the article "Recycling Stalinist 'History'," accompanying this review.]

The photos in Prentice Hall World Geography are of professional quality, rich in information, and well captioned. The maps within the chapters are useful, but there are not enough economic maps. The book's description of the United States, for example, includes physical-political maps of the country's four quadrants, but there is only one economic map. It shows the United States as a whole. Four economic maps, depicting manufacturing nodes in the four quadrants, would be more helpful.

In the chapter about Canada, the cartographic documentation is especially weak, and the maps are used in a very superficial way. For example: Given a physical-political map, students are asked to find out which province contains the city of Winnipeg or the city of "Ottowa" (sic), or they must name a lake lying north of the Arctic Circle. Maps of population and economic activities would be far more useful and would support some intelligent questions: Where do most of Canada's people live? Why? What economic activities do they pursue? Where are those activities concentrated, and why? Such questions would lead students to see Canada's paramount problem: Only 25 million people, most of them living along the border with the United States, are trying to manage the third-largest country in the world.

As a summary: The format of Prentice Hall World Geography is innovative and skillful, but the content is uneven in depth and, at times, inaccurate in detail. This is a better textbook than the ones that were published three or four years ago, but it is noticeably inadequate in its treatment of social, political and economic matters.

This Well Balanced Book
Fills an Important Niche

Neal G. Lineback

Intended for grades 7 through 12, the "Updated Edition" of Prentice Hall World Geography is a comprehensive textbook that strikes a nice balance in blending physical geography, human (cultural) geography, and a survey of the world by regions. In my judgment, this is one of the best world-geography books available.

The writers have made excellent use of full-color maps and graphs to encourage students to analyze geographic patterns and the phenomena from which those patterns arise. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book, however, is the way in which it develops a conceptual framework

Middle-grade and high-school geography texts are often criticized for offering too much jargon, too many place names, and too few concepts, and for being repetitious and boring. Prentice Hall World Geography is an exception. It has the right combination of technical terms, names and concepts, and it is anything but boring. The five themes of geography are introduced early and then are used throughout the book -- something that will bring happiness to those social-studies teachers who have been following the work of the state geographic alliances during the past seven years.

The book's 35 chapters are divided into eleven units. The first unit, "Physical and Human Geography," contains four chapters that are called "The Study of Geography," "Land, Climate, and Vegetation," "Population and Culture" and "Resources and Land Use." The treatment of physical and human geography is rather short, by the standards of professional geographers, but the writers partly compensate for this by referring to aspects of physical and human geography throughout the book. This technique, often neglected in other secondary-school geography text, is essential for ensuring that students will comprehend that local, regional and global processes are interconnected, as are local, regional and global patterns.

The ten other units deal with regions, which are defined in a common way that is acceptable in most social-studies curricula.

At the back of the book, students find a table of countries, an atlas, a gazetteer, a glossary and an index. The table of countries not only gives each country's capital and principal language (or languages) but also shows population, overall population density, rate of population growth, per-capita GNP, literacy rate, infant mortality rate, and life expectancy -- information that students will find very useful if teachers give assignments involving comparisons among countries. The atlas has a pair of maps showing each region (except the Pacific World and Antarctica) that the book considers. Within each pair, one map shows political units while the other shows major physical features. The gazetteer and the glossary are useful, though the gazetteer is limited and does not include all of the place names (such as Manchuria) that are mentioned in the book's text.

In addition to the maps in the atlas, Prentice Hall World Geography offers many political, physical and thematic maps within the chapters. The subjects of these maps have been carefully selected, and the maps themselves are innovative in construction: Oblique views, three-dimensional effects, insets and unusual projections keep the maps interesting and provide new perspectives.

Graphs are not abundant, but they are used effectively to demonstrate comparisons or changes over time, and to illustrate things such as seasonal climatic parameters and topographic relief. With the exception of one highly exaggerated topographic profile (on page 93), all the graphs are flawless and very useful.

The writers of Prentice Hall World Geography continually surprise the reader with innovative feature articles. There are 113 of these articles, divided into six basic types: "Where on Earth?"; "A Geographic View of History"; "Daily Life"; "Case Studies on Current Issues"; "Skills Check"; and "Making Connections." The "Where on Earth?" items (which perhaps have been inspired by the Public Broadcasting System's Carmen SanDiego programs) encourage the reader to use an atlas in solving mysteries. The "Geographic View of History" features look at the geography of some events in the past. Under the "Daily Life" heading, the writers show how some patterns of human life differ among cultures. The "Case Studies on Current Issues" provide insights into some contemporary events, such as the Palestinians' struggle for autonomy or the Maoris' efforts to claim land in New Zealand. The "Skills Check" items tell how to read a population-density map, how to interpret a weather map, and so forth. The "Making Connections" pages highlight global problems that touch local regions: problems such as acid rain, the extermination of species, and the social unrest promoted by world communication links.

Prentice Hall World Geography has its flaws, but most of them are minor and seem to involve items that were mistakenly carried forward from earlier editions. Among the more serious mistakes is a statement on page 104: "The total amount of goods and services produced by the United States is about twice that of the Soviet Union." The book also retains some obsolete references to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. In the unit on "Africa South of the Sahara," the text mentions Somalia (where a military force from the United States was recently involved in a United Nations action) but gives no substantive information about it. Eritrea, the newest African country, is not mentioned anywhere.

All this helps us to see the difficulty in keeping a world-geography text up-to-date. The magnitude of the subject, combined with the continual economic, political and social changes occurring around the world, means that few topics can be covered in depth and no book can be entirely current.

As a former teacher of high-school geography, I find Prentice Hall World Geography to be the kind of text that can generate enthusiasm among students and serve as a valuable classroom resource. I must rate this book among the best available, particularly for students -- whether in the middle grades or in high school -- who haven't had previous instruction in world geography.


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). His research interests include the political geography of Eastern Europe.

Neal G. Lineback is a professor of geography. He heads the Department of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University (in Boone, North Carolina), and he writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column called "Geography in the News."

----------

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