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from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1994

Reviewing a high-school book in social studies

Fearon's World Geography and Cultures
1994. 560 pages. ISBN: 0-8224-0852-X.
Globe Fearon Educational Publisher, 240 Frisch Court, Paramus,
New Jersey 07652. (This schoolbook company is a part of Paramount
Communications, which is a part of Viacom Inc., one of the largest
entertainment companies in the United States.)

A Silly, Amateurish Book
with a Questionable Title

Jerry R. Williams

According to the publisher's catalogue, the "interest level" of Fearon's World Geography and Cultures spans grades 6 through 12, but the book's "reading level" is said to be "below 4.0." I commend the publisher's desire to provide a text for students whose reading abilities are limited, but I find that the book itself leaves a great deal to be desired.

In strictly visual terms, the most interesting part of the entire book is the cover, with its multicolored photograph of a Masai tribeswoman. After that, things go downhill. In a book for students who have trouble with reading, what can be more important than to use plenty of interesting photographs and maps that not only will convey information graphically but also will hold the students' attention and make them want to keep on reading? Very few of us elect to watch black-and-white television or to play black-and-white video games, because color displays are more attractive and more effective in capturing the imagination. The same is true for illustrations in textbooks, but the people who produced Fearon's World Geography and Cultures seem to be unaware of that. All the photographs inside this book are printed in black and white, while the maps are printed in black, white and green.

I find the format of the text pages to be both unappealing and wasteful. Each page is about seven inches wide, but it carries only a single column of type, and the width of the column is only four inches. Almost half of the page is blank. (On some pages, the outer margin has a small picture or a short note, printed in green ink, that may or may not be related to the text.) This sort of layout may be "in" among book-designers, but it wastes space. It also means that a lot of the illustrations must be so severely reduced in size that they become virtually impossible to comprehend. I know that readers may be deterred if too much text is crowded onto a page, and I know that leaving enough white space is important, but what Globe Fearon has done is ridiculous. If the designers had made better use of the space available on this book's pages, they could have reduced the book's size and (theoretically, at least) its cost.

Meaningless Mentioning

As a geographer, I seriously question the appropriateness of having the word "geography" in this book's title.

The book's first unit -- titled "What Is Geography?" -- dutifully presents "the five themes of geography," gives a chapter to physical geography, and then ends with a chapter on cultural geography. After that introductory unit, however, I can't find even one reference to any of the five themes, or any account of how any theme is reflected in the life of anyone anywhere. The Globe Fearon writers seem to think that the five themes form a magical concoction that, once introduced, will automatically permeate a reader's intellect. That isn't so. If the themes are to have any value as a framework for understanding geography, they must be cited repeatedly and must be used to illustrate how geography and the things that geographers study are parts of everyday life for all of us, regardless of where we live.

Like the meaningless mentioning of the five themes, the array of useless maps in this "geography" book is enough to make a geographer scream in disbelief and agony. Most of the maps appear to have no purpose except to make the book look vaguely geographic. With hardly any exceptions, the maps are too small to read and are virtually devoid of instructional value. (I've recently purchased postage stamps that are larger than some of the maps in Fearon's World Geography and Cultures.) A map of the Pacific Basin, intended to show the Ring of Fire, measures about 1.4 x 1.7 inches (page 9). A map of Earth-Sun relationships is about 2 inches square (page 20). A map of "Landforms of Canada and the United States" measures about 3.5 x 4 inches (page 46). A map depicting some prehistoric migrations of humans -- from Siberia into North America and all the way through Central America -- measures about 1.6 x 2.3 inches (page 58). A linguistic map of the entire continent of Africa measures 1.7 x 2.2 inches (page 171).

Besides being tiny and difficult to read, and besides making poor use of symbols, a number of the maps contain obvious errors. The map on page 118, for example, puts Caracas in the western part of Venezuela's interior, but Caracas actually lies in northeastern Venezuela, near the coast. The same map places Iguacu Falls in the center of southern Brazil, but the falls are actually on the border that Brazil shares with Argentina and Paraguay.

In various cases, there are textual references to geographic features (such as Machu Picchu, the Great Rift Valley, Olduvai Gorge, the Aral Sea) that are not shown on any of the book's maps. The student can't see where these features are or why they may be important.

Reading Fearon's World Geography and Cultures leads me to question the writers' understanding of geography, for the book includes many claims that are dubious, misleading or plainly incorrect. For example:

The chapter on Russia also says that "Most of Russia has a continental climate -- that is, the seasons are sharply different" (emphasis in the original). But there is no "continental" climate among the five types of climate mentioned in the book's chapter on physical geography, nor does any "continental" climate appear anywhere but in the description of Russia.

On page 394, Taiwan is called "one of Asia's most powerful countries." Powerful in what sense? Militarily? Economically? Politically? These are substantially different ways of being powerful. I question whether Taiwan is "powerful" in any sense when it is compared with Japan, China, South Korea or Indonesia.

The description of India's caste system (pages 436 through 438) is misleading at best. It may apply to rural areas, but not to metropolitan areas or urban centers.

I must say again that the title Fearon's World Geography and Cultures doesn't seem proper. This textbook, which presents very little geography, can be described accurately as a watered-down cultural history of the world, tending to focus on the exotic and the unusual (in the old National Geographic tradition).

The author named on the title page is one Robin Kelly, but there is no description of this person's credentials or background. The curriculum advisor shown on the copyright page is identified as a speech pathologist, and the "subject area consultant" is said to be a freelance writer and former teacher of history. In short, I see no indication that anyone associated with the writing and editing of this book has any idea of what constitutes geography. Yet the United States has no shortage of professional geographers who are qualified to review and rewrite schoolbooks. Publishers should take note of this resource and make use of it.

The designated audience for Fearon's World Geography and Cultures -- students with limited reading abilities -- deserve a well written, accurate, attractively designed book whose maps and text can be readily understood. Fearon's World Geography and Cultures is not that book.

A Sketchy, Incoherent Book
That Fosters Misperceptions

James R. Giese

Globe Fearon, the company that markets Fearon's World Geography and Cultures, touts this textbook's reading level as being "below 4.0," and says that the "interest level" is "6-12." Although the meaning of the latter claim is not entirely clear to me, I presume it to mean that Globe Fearon will sell this book for use at any level higher than grade 5. The company also says that the book is appropriate for ESL students (i.e., students for whom English is a second language), but I see little evidence, other than the low reading level, to support that claim.

The book's most important characteristic, in my opinion, is its almost incredible brevity. There are only 560 pages, measuring about 7 x 9 inches. Even so, the writers have tried to cover world geography, on a region-by-region basis, while augmenting their geographic survey with historical and cultural material.

After an opening unit on the nature of geography, there are nine units about regions: the United States and Canada; Latin America; Africa south of the Sahara; North Africa and the Middle East; Western Europe; Russia and Eastern Europe; Central and East Asia; South and Southeast Asia; and the South Pacific. Throughout, one can see the conflict between the book's ambitious scope and the writers' insistence on brevity.

That conflict sometimes leads to omissions. In the unit about the United States and Canada, for example, most of the references to Canada seem to be afterthoughts, and the text fails to make meaningful comparisons between the two countries -- say, by contrasting their immigration policies or their policies toward indigenous peoples. In the same unit, we see how the telescoping of historical material can render the material incoherent. Consider this passage, on page 53, about industrialization:

An area from the Great Lakes to the east coast was once called the industrial belt. Coal and metal ores were mined nearby, and factories sprang up to make steel. Then factories sprang up to use all that steel. The car industry, for example, boomed in Detroit. Even now, this area is where most U.S. cars are made. (Just across the border, Canada produces cars too.) Today the United States no longer makes much steel but imports most of it from abroad.

That is misleading at best, and it explains nothing. Why, for example, did factories spring up to make steel before there were factories that would use it? Why has the United States turned from making steel to importing it? And if the name "industrial belt" has been discarded, as the first sentence seems to imply, what name has replaced it, and why?

Similar passages, unfortunately, occur throughout the book.

The writers' insistence on brevity also leads them to foster misperceptions. On page 73, for example, they look back to the 17th century and create a fictitious African slave named Kinsha. Then they say: "Like Kinsha, most African Americans came to America as slaves." Two things are wrong here. First, the term African American (a recent neologism, unknown in the 17th century) is anachronistic. Calling a 17th-century slave an "African American" is rather like referring to a 17th-century farmer an "agribusiness manager." Next, the writers' statement ignores a pivotal fact: After 1720 or so, the North American slave population, was maintained (and indeed was expanded) chiefly by reproduction among the slaves who were already here, not by the arrival of new slaves from Africa. This was a major difference between the slave system in North America and the system that prevailed in the Caribbean or in South America, and we know some reasons why the difference arose: The North American environment was more hospitable, North American slaves enjoyed better nutrition and less onerous work routines, the fraction of females in the North American slave population was higher, and North American slaveholders promoted the formation of slave families. All those things mattered in the lives of individual slaves, and all helped to make the history of slavery in North America different from the history of slavery in other parts of the New World.

The problems created by brevity are exacerbated by some other choices that the publisher has made. For example, the book offers a lot of little vignettes and anecdotes, presumably intended to make things more interesting. (According to Globe Fearon's catalogue, "Lively anecdotes at the beginning of chapters relate lessons to the world students know -- and make them want to learn more.") Many of the items fail, however, because they are too improbable or because they are mistaken in some way or another. In a vignette on page 29, a (presumably Anglo) girl named Jenny goes from Texas into Mexico and finds that Mexico is "like another world," with strange architecture, unfamiliar foods, unfamiliar music, and an incomprehensible language. This is the writers' effort to introduce the idea of culture, and it is poorly conceived. The writers don't explain that Jenny's reaction depends not only on demonstrable aspects of culture but also on her own experiences and perceptions. Would we expect the same reaction from, say, a Mexican-American girl who had grown up in the Texas town of Laredo?

Feature articles abound, and they present problems of their own. The "Coming Home" features try to emphasize the conditions of life experienced by ordinary people in various cultures. Some of these seem to succeed but others do not, principally because the writers haven't been able to avoid over-generalizing -- sometimes to the point of caricature. The "Celebrations" features are intended to tell about festivals and ceremonies in various cultures. They would be better if they were comparative and analytical, rather than merely descriptive. The "Spotlight" features cover a random assortment of topics, ranging from the Chernobyl disaster and the ozone layer to the Sendero Luminoso, the Rastafarians, and Olduvai Gorge. The problem with these features is that the writers do very little with the topics that they have chosen, and they rarely ask questions about the material. When they do pose questions, the questions often cannot be answered with the information that the book provides.

The "Geographer's Tool Kit" features seem even more troubling. They consider ten topics, in this order: time zones; tectonic plates; languages of Africa; world famine; economic maps; world literacy; evolution of Indo-European languages; changing borders; city transportation; and oceanic currents. I am mystified by the writers' choice of "tools," and I wonder how those "tools" can be used by students in dealing with other geographic material that the book offers.

I also wonder why the book's maps are so poor. The maps are spartan at best, they lack color, and in many instances they are extremely difficult to read.

I believe that Fearon's World Geography and Cultures could be substantially improved if the writers would pay more attention to the five fundamental themes of geography. To be sure, the themes are discussed adequately in the book's opening unit. After that, however, little of the narrative is tied back to the themes and their component concepts. For example, specific movements of people are noted at many points in the text (whether in terms of migration or in terms of trade), but the writers don't link these episodes to the basic theme of movement, its causes, and its long-term consequences. If the narrative were connected more carefully to the fundamental themes, the book would be more comprehensible to students in social-studies and more effective in helping students to learn about the world's diverse peoples.


Jerry R. Williams, a specialist in cultural geography, is a professor in the Department of Geography at California State University, Chico. He is also a district coordinator for the California Geographic Alliance, which supports the teaching of geography in the public schools, and he has directed various teacher-education projects.

James R. Giese is the executive director of the Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., in Boulder, Colorado. He has directed various teacher-education and curriculum-development projects sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the federal Department of Justice.

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