The view from the West is fine

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Andy Schofield reviews a geography series that looks good but reveals serious bias. World Geography series. By Brian Knapp. People. 1 869860 33 0. Homes. 38 1. Shops. 43 8. Cities. 48 9. Transport. 53 5. Farms. 58 6. Industry. 63 2.

Resources. 68 3. Energy. 73 X. Environments. 78 0.

Weather . 83 7. Earth. 88 8.

Atlantic Europe Publishing Pounds 9.99 each

Age range 10 - 14

The World Geography series could well capture your imagination. Each volume, written for the libraryresource centre as support material for top primary and lower secondary geography, is lavishly illustrated in full colour. Indeed, the overall quality of the photography, much of it from the air, is exceptional and there are over 100 photographs in each book. The text is mostly straightforward and highlights key ideas. The reading level is raised by the desire to explain ideas and terms in depth.

The series' author, Brian Knapp, is a well-known physical geographer and the physical and environmental geography aspects of the series are authoritative and up to date. The books which focus on human geography also bring a welcome historical perspective to their topics.

The problem with this series - and it is a serious one - is that it presents a simple, uncontentious picture of the world. Western Europe, the USA, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore form one part of the world and are great places to live. The rest of the world is either "developing" with the usual catalogue of problems, or is formerly Communist and in a mess.

The historical treatment of events is almost exclusively from a Western perspective. The developing world is a place where: "the majority of people still depend on farming for their living, where wages are poor and there is a lack of advanced technology such as electricity." This glossary definition appears in all but two of the books. No mention of an historical perspective here. In People, Malthusian ideas are presented uncritically and in Farming, the reason for malnutrition and famine is ". . . simply that people cannot afford to buy the food that exists" (the authors' emphasis, p38). The statement "People in the developing world are very practical" (Transport, p61) is an example of patronising stereotype at its worst. The characterisation of shifting cultivation as subsistence agriculture which takes place in savanna regions is simply inaccurate (Farming, pp 12-13).

Major events in world history are oversimplified. We learn, for example, that "The Russian Revolution of 1917 turned Russia into a communist country and divided the world in two" (Energy, p40). This is followed by fairly frequent digs at the success of capitalism over communism. "Russia's vast oil fields could have given it the chance to match the United States in low-cost manufacturing, but under communism the fields were not properly developed. " (Energy, p42). In contrast, some notable landmarks in world history are scattered among the text, such as the fact that the USA had the world's first HEP plant in 1882 (Energy, p50) the world's first nuclear power station in the 1940s (Energy, p28), the world's first self-service food store in Texas in 1916 (Shops, p30) and the world's first skyscraper in Chicago in 1883 (Homes, p28).

The author's view of an ideal society frequently intrudes . "It is perhaps most easy to organise a country if it is compact, if the people have the same background and if the government offers a strong guiding hand." (People, p18). Presumably it is the government of Singapore that the author has in mind, because on the next page we learn that ". . . through the efforts of a strong-willed and purposeful government the country has been able to feel united and has seen a way to develop the future"(p19). The celebration of the triumph of capitalism over communism is self-evident, but what are we to make of the account of arranged marriages as a ". . . perfectly natural response to a practical situation. People who are working all day just to survive can spare little time for love"?

This series illustrates a continuing problem with geography books, whether for the classroom or library. Superficially they can look very appealing, but the text needs careful attention. Only the books in this series which deal exclusively with physical geographical topics can be recommended. The others could cause real problems with younger readers, particularly those working on their own.

Andy Schofield is Curriculum Manager at Falmer School, Brighton.

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