Logo

from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1996

Reviewing a middle-school book in social studies.

World Cultures
1995. 692 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-382-32180-4.
Silver Burdett Ginn, 299 Jefferson Road, Parsippany, New Jersey
07054. (Silver Burdett Ginn is a part of the entertainment
company Viacom Inc.)

A Rehash of History,
with a Spurious Title

Jerry R. Williams

According to modern folklore, if something looks like a duck and walks like a duck and makes noise like a duck, then it must be a duck. The same idea applies to schoolbooks. A book may carry whatever title the publisher chooses, including World Cultures; but if the book looks like a history book and is given almost entirely to rehashing world history, then it must be a history book -- and it has to be judged on that basis.

An introductory textbook about world cultures may be grounded in cultural anthropology or in cultural geography. In either event, however, it must start with some discussion of what constitutes "culture." The writers must explain at the outset that culture is a phenomenon shared by all peoples, and that it has identifiable components such as language and religion and social structure. After students have learned those fundamental ideas, the writers next must enumerate, define and illustrate the cultural traits that they will emphasize in describing cultures and comparing one culture with another. Only when this conceptual structure is in place can the writers begin to tell about specific cultures and specific societies.

Some writers describe and compare societies that are (or were) contemporaneous. Others consider societies that have existed at different times within a well defined temporal framework. In all cases, however, the writers must ensure that students are mindful of what culture is, of the cultural features that are being examined, and of what we can expect to gain from examining them.

The writers of this Silver Burdett Ginn book have not done any of these things, and World Cultures isn't a book about cultures. It is just a highly generalized version of world history, occasionally mixed with some geography -- and even when it is judged as a history text, it fails. It has too much obsolete "information," and the writers have sloppily combined new and old material in ways that create inconsistencies, blur the dimension of time, and distort historical relationships.

The book starts out with a "Map Skills Handbook" that presents basic concepts of geography. If it were done well, this would be a welcome feature in a history book. Unfortunately, it is done poorly -- and while I recognize that small maps can't show much detail, I can think of no excuse for the grossly inaccurate maps on pages 24 and 25. The illustrator should have obtained information from a real atlas.

After the "Handbook" comes a sixteen-page section called "Countries of the World," which lists the countries alphabetically and provides some "facts" about each -- e.g., capital city, area, population, population density, and most important export. This section also gives the first signal that the writers have reused old material that was outdated even in 1995, the year of the book's copyright. The student learns, for example, that there is a country called "Former Soviet Union" and another named "Former Yugoslavia." This might have been excusable in a history book published in 1992 -- but not in a book dated in 1995.

The bulk of the book forms six units: "Ancient Civilizations (to A.D. 476)," "The Growth of Civilizations (476-1453)," "Time of Change (1453-1820)," "Nationalism and Imperialism (1820-1900)," "Entering the Twentieth Century (1900-1975)" and "The World Today(1975-Present)." Those unit titles, by themselves, suffice to show that World Cultures is really a rehash of world history, with a spurious title.

World Cultures gives me the impression that Silver Burdett Ginn has hired too many writers but too few editors. If this book had been put through competent editing, it surely would not have retained so much temporal confusion. Chapter 1, "Early Civilizations," has a page about a landing of American astronauts on the Moon! Chapter 2, "Ancient Egypt," starts with three pages about the geography of modern Egypt, complete with a map showing the Aswan High Dam. Then, as the text tells how the ancient Egyptians used papyrus and sailed to "foreign lands," a photograph shows a modern barge on the Nile. Such mixing of modern geography with ancient history shows up in other chapters as well.

(Another feature of chapter 2 is that it contains the book's one and only mention of the concept of culture -- a single sentence on page 84.)

Throughout the book, the tables and charts lack dates. Perhaps the information that they present was accurate at one time or another, but we can't tell when.

More confusion is created in the short atlas at the back of the book, because the political map of Eurasia (pages 648 and 649) contradicts the "Countries of the World" section at the front of the book. The map in the atlas doesn't show any "Former Yugoslavia" but does show the states spawned by Yugoslavia's disintegration, such as Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Likewise, the map doesn't show any "Former Soviet Union," but it does show the separate states that emerged after the Soviet Union collapsed: Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and so forth. The map cannot be used with the "Countries of the World" list, nor can it be used with the book's chapter about Europe and the empire that Russia used to rule; that chapter continues to speak about a huge entity called "the former Soviet Union."

The ten-page gazetteer at the back of the book is helpful in locating places mentioned in the text, and the glossary is useful too. The glossary even tells, correctly, that the acronym OPEC stands for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. This is an improvement over what the writers say in chapter 25 of the main text, where OPEC allegedly denotes "Organization of Petroleum Exporting Nations"!

World Cultures has been hastily pulled together by people who evidently lack any commitment to the standards which we, as teachers, set for our own students. Even as a history book, it will not do.

This "Cultures" Book
Is Bogus and Useless

Sara Thompson

Silver Burdett Ginn's World Cultures is a fake. Despite its title, it makes no effort to examine and compare cultures.

This book seems to have been cobbled together from pieces of old geography texts and world-history texts. It presents a whirlwind tour across continents and time, with only the most superficial glimpses at peoples or events. The West receives more elaborate treatment than do the other parts of the world -- but in the end, no peoples or historical periods stand out from the general blur.

World Cultures has a 1995 copyright, but it already is long out- of-date. In this book, Nelson Mandela has not yet become the head of state in South Africa. Japan is still enjoying its "economic miracle" of the 1980s. Cuba is in good condition, and "poverty has been largely eliminated"; apparently, the Soviet Union's aid to Cuba hasn't yet come to an end. But the Soviet Union itself apparently has come to an end and has changed into Russia. The Silver Burdett Ginn writers continually call Russia "the former Soviet Union," sometimes to hilarious effect (as we shall see).

Besides failing to teach about cultures, and besides being obsolete, World Cultures does not live up to claims put forth in Silver Burdett Ginn's catalogue:

Are you still awake? These passages have nothing to interest a middle-school student or any other reader -- not because the material is too difficult or abstract, but because all of the color and complexity have been bleached out of it.

Sometimes the book's pervasive dullness is relieved by a passage so bad that it is startling. Here's an item from page 204:

The Byzantine Empire [in the 5th century] was the center of Christianity in Eastern Europe, just as Rome was the center in the West. Christian missionaries spread the message of Christ to the Slavic people of central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

"The former Soviet Union"? In the 5th century? Evidently some writer found some old material about Byzantine missionaries in Russia, then made it conform to Silver Burdett Ginn's practice of labeling Russia "the former Soviet Union" -- even though the result is quite hilarious. In fact, even the notion that Byzantine missionaries traveled to Russia is hilarious. The state that we now call Russia did not acquire its modern name (Rossiya) until the 1700s, during the reign of Peter the Great.

Peter the Great, incidentally, makes an appearance in World Cultures. The writers tell us that he visited western Europe, invited foreigners to visit Russia, built a navy, and built St. Petersburg. Then they say:

Unfortunately, Peter's reforms affected only the top layer of Russian society. The way of life for the great majority of Russians remained unchanged for many years after Peter's reign ended. [page 368]

Why this should strike the writers as unfortunate isn't explained. What strikes me as unfortunate is that the paragraph is meaningless. It is meaningless because the book gives no description whatsoever of any "way of life" in Russia, either before or during Peter's time. The reader can only guess at how any Russians may have lived.

As a final example of this book's negligent, outdated treatment of history, let me quote a short passage about Japan's Tokugawa period:

After a history full of wars, Japan enjoyed almost 250 years of peace under the Tokugawa shoguns. But their practices maintained the system as it was, keeping foreign influences out of Japan. At a time when Europe was rapidly developing a modern civilization based on scientific and technological progress, Japan for the most part stood still. [page 340]

Here the writers are just reciting an old formula that was discredited long ago. As all recent scholarship has shown, Japan in the Tokugawa era saw rapid urbanization, the development of a brilliant urban culture, the establishment of a money economy, and the attainment of a literacy rate that was probably the highest in the world. Moreover, Japan's evolution during the Tokugawa period created the conditions that would favor rapid modernization during the succeeding Meiji period. In no sense is it correct to say that Japan "stood still" in the time of the Tokugawa shoguns, for this was a time of national growth and cultural flowering.

Recommendation

As educators, we have to examine our own objectives in teaching about cultures, and we have to demand (or create for ourselves) instructional materials that will correspond to those objectives. If we want our students to appreciate the variety and intricacy of cultures past or present, and if we want them to understand history as an interpretation of human striving, then we will shun things like World Cultures. This book cannot contribute anything to our efforts.

It's a Mockery
In Every Sense

William J. Bennetta

Now and then, I encounter schoolbooks that seem to be deliberate attempts at mockery. The publishers of these books seem to be saying to teachers: "Ha! You're so dumb that you'll buy anything -- even this offal."

I previously have reviewed several such books for TTL, including a memorable high-school text that was published by Prentice Hall and was called World Cultures: A Global Mosaic. That book did not have anything to do with cultures, and it did not provide any account of any culture anywhere. It was just a load of scraps (most of which had evidently been clipped from old history books), and it was entirely untainted by any awareness of what cultures are, what the term culture means, or how cultures are studied. (See the reviews of World Cultures: A Global Mosaic in The Textbook Letter, March-April 1994.)

I'd seen fake books before, but I found the Prentice Hall product to be something special. By printing a book that didn't even try to deal with its declared subject, Prentice Hall seemed to have set a new standard for sleaziness. The company also seemed to have made an especially bold declaration that it viewed its prospective customers as suckers.

Now Prentice Hall's achievements have been matched by Silver Burdett Ginn -- which is, like Prentice Hall, a part of Viacom Inc. Silver Burdett Ginn's World Cultures mimics the Prentice Hall book in every important respect. Once again I see a "world cultures" book that does not have anything to do with cultures, does not provide any account of any culture anywhere, and does not show any recognition of what cultures are, or of how cultures are studied. Again I see a worthless jumble of scraps, apparently clipped from old history books. And again I see a book that seems to ridicule the people to whom it supposedly will be sold.

I see something else, too. Like Prentice Hall's book, this one has various passages in which the writers obscure or erase the distinction between history and legend, between fact and folklore. For example:

So much for Eusebius -- and so much for the Silver Burdett Ginn missionaries. So much for World Cultures, too. This book is a mockery, in every sense.


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.

Sara Thompson is a high-school social-studies teacher and curriculum-development consultant. Her most recent project has been the writing of a curriculum about contemporary Japan for the Laurasian Institution (Atlanta, Illinois). She lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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.

----------

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