Reappraising the place of geography textbooks

By Tim Hall, University of Winchester, and James D Sidaway, National University of Singapore.  

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Trump praises health care of Nambia, a nonexistent African country. Image Credit: Marco Verch CC BY 2.0

US President Donald Trump recently attracted mocking headlines and social media comment from around the world for praising the health care system of a nonexistent African country. During a United Nations speech to African leaders in September 2017, Trump lavished praise on the imaginary nation’s health care system, arguing “Nambia’s health system is increasingly self-sufficient.” After presumably drawing blank looks from the assembled leaders, it was later clarified by the White House that Trump was actually referring to Namibia, although commentators have speculated that he might have just as well been referring to Zambia or Gambia.

Donald Trump’s shaky grasp of the geography of Africa suggested he spent little of his time as a student at the University of Pennsylvania with his nose buried in an atlas or geography textbook. Geography textbooks though are far more than just crib sheets of basic geographical knowledge. They play important roles in shaping the discipline, student’s world views and the visibility of their authors, themes explored in our recently published Area paper and the subsequent collection on the production and utilisation of geography textbooks, for which it acts as an introduction.

Geography textbooks have undoubtedly played key roles in the evolution of the discipline, through the codification and communication of new perspectives and the education of geographers in the making (at school, college and university), for example. However, despite this they have been relatively little discussed within the literature on Geography’s histories. In our paper we mention Dorothy Preece’s (1938) textbook, The foundations of geography, written whilst she was a teacher at Crewe County Secondary School in north west England, which sold around 100,000 copies a year, a figure unimaginable today. Despite this though, it is a text largely forgotten by disciplinary historians. Similarly we point to the key role of Richard Chorley and Peter Haggett’s (1967) Models in Geography in disseminating geography’s quantitative revolution. Recognising changing technologies, pedagogies and modes of publishing now we argue that addressing this lack of critical debate on textbooks in geography is a timely endeavour.

The essays in the collection that follow our paper, all of which are authored by experienced textbook authors and editors from the UK, USA, Aotearoa / New Zealand and Singapore, explore these themes in the contexts of their own engagement in the processes of textbook production. The collection offers a series of highly personal perspectives but ones that connect with a range of wider disciplinary themes and debates.

Geographical illiteracy is a point picked up in Barney Warf’s paper ‘textbooks in human geography: an American perspective’. The essay was produced prior to Trump’s Nambia gaff. However, Nambia serves to remind us of the enduring importance of geographical knowledge and the vehicles through which it is produced, disseminated and consumed. Geography textbooks have changed radically since Dorothy Preece was writing in the 1930s and continue to evolve today, in an age of online delivery and proliferating fonts of opinion and demands on student attention. They are an enduring part of geography’s history, mirror to its present and will be keys to its future, and as this collection of papers shows, one that continues to deserve serious critical attention.

About the authors: Tim Hall is Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Studies and Head of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Winchester and James D Sidaway is Professor of Political Geography at the National University of Singapore. 

The associated papers are available in Early View, and are free-to-access until Feb 2018. The collection will be published in a issue of Area in 2018.

References

books_icon Sidaway, J. D. and Hall, T. (2017), Geography textbooks, pedagogy and disciplinary traditions. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12397

books_icon Couper, P. (2017), Visibility and invisibility in, of and through textbook publication. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12398

books_icon Inkpen, R. (2017), The ‘smugness’ of geographers: dismantling the caricatures of philosophies in Human and Physical Geography. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12399

books_icon Ramdas, K., Ho, E. L.-E. and Woon, C. Y. (2017), Changing landscapes as text: Geography and national education in Singapore. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12400

books_icon Warf, B. (2017), Textbooks in Human Geography: an American perspective. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12401

books_icon Sparke, M. (2017), Textbooks as opportunities for interdisciplinarity and planetarity. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12402

books_icon Murray, W. E. and Overton, J. (2017), Globalisation is not spelt with a zed: Geography texts for and from Oceania. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12403

60-world2  Karimi F 2017 Trump praises health care of Nambia, a nonexistent African country CCN  21  September 2017

60-world2  Zilber A 2017 ‘It was the world’s largest exporter of covfefe’: Trump is slammed on social media for referring to non-existent country ‘Nambia’ during his lunch with African leaders Daily Mail 21 September 2017

 

 

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