Towards a generic history of geography textbooks

Catechisms, grammars, and readers: towards a generic history of geography textbooks

Innes M. Keighren



Scholarship in book history and the history of geography has highlighted considerable generic diversity in the evolution of geography’s textbooks, showing their form, content, and purpose to have be shaped variously by pedagogical, political, and moral concerns (Brückner 2006; Marsden 2001; Ploszajska 1999; Sitwell 1993; Withers 2001, 2007). The historical publication of geographical textbooks was shaped too, as it is today, by the commercial interests of publishers; questions of price, format, and audience sat alongside those of intellectual value and practical utility (Clark and Phillips 2014). The historical decisions made by authors and publishers over the appropriate stylistic means and material form by which to present geographical knowledge to an audience of, typically, young readers are important for what they reveal about perceptions of geography’s value and assumptions made about how it might most effectively be communicated. In what follows, I trace briefly the generic development of Anglo-American geography textbooks from their early-modern origins to their nineteenth-century apotheosis.


From special geography to geographical catechisms

Notwithstanding the historical diversity of geography’s printed works of reference, the emergence of what we might reasonably consider its textbook genre has been traced by Sitwell (1993, 377) to the publication in 1671 of George Meriton’s A Geographical Description of the World. In many respects an unremarkable work, Meriton’s text was part of a well-established generic tradition: so-called ‘special’ geography. Alongside related forms of geographical writing, distinguished by the scale of their focus—cosmography, chorography, and topography—special geography sought to account systematically for the physical and political characteristics of the inhabited world. Special geography was typified by an attention to the specific qualities and situations of individual countries (their climate, natural resources, inhabitants, ports and cities, mountains and rivers). These basic foci, albeit refined and expanded upon over time, remained a fundamental component of works of special geography aimed at young readers well into the nineteenth century. Part of the enduring appeal of such works, particularly during the Enlightenment, related to the value that was attributed to geographical knowledge of this type, both for its own sake and for its scientific and mercantile utility, and assumptions that were made about young readers’ modes of understanding and recall.

Among Enlightenment-era commentators on children’s education, the philosopher John Locke was typical in espousing the value of special geography, particularly when its instruction was exemplified with the use of a globe: learning “the Situation and Boundaries of the Four Parts of the World, and that of particular Kingdoms and Countries” was not only intrinsically valuable, he argued, but as an “exercise of the Eyes and Memory” was one that “a child with pleasure will learn and retain” (Locke 1693, 213). Concern over the relationship between learning, memory, and recall is, at least in part, an explanation for the parallel emergence of a catechetical variety of special geography texts: volumes that adopted the long-established question-and-answer format of religious doctrinal catechisms to encourage an active rather than passive approach to learning geography’s central facts (Roldán Vera 2001).

One early example of this genre was the anonymously authored A Short Way to Know the World: Or the Rudiments of Geography, published in London in 1707 by the bookseller Thomas Osborne (the 1712 second edition identified the author as one T H). The book’s subtitle promised readers that, for their modest two-shilling investment, they would obtain a New Familiar Method of Teaching Youth the Knowledge of the Globe, and the Four Quarters of the World. Applied to geography, the ‘familiar’ (i.e., easily-understood) catechetical format was presented as a didactic innovation—one that might more effectively communicate geographical principles to the subject’s students by reinforcing learning through recall. As the author of another geographical catechism put it, “The memory of children is help’d [sic] by a clear and short question, which often brings the answer to their mind” (Lenglet du Fresnoy 1737, iv). Questions in A Short Way to Know the World ranged from the general—“Q. What is Geography? A. It is a Science which teaches the Description of the Natural Globe of the Earth”—to the specific: “Q. Which are the chief Rivers [of Europe]?”, “Which are the chief Lakes?”, “Which are the chief Mountains?” (H 1712 1, 21).

The imaginative construction of geography as a set of principles and facts that might be learned by rote through catechetical instruction had an enduring influence on both the subject’s print culture and its pedagogical practice. Geographical catechisms dominated among instructive texts published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and, in turn, shaped curriculum design and teaching practices in schools (Hahn 2015; Marsden 2003). It is, arguably, to geography’s catechetical didactic tradition that we owe the popular perception of the geographer as “a walking gazetteer, a fount of facts” (de Blij 2012, 328); it is the reason we, as geographers, are assumed to know and to be able to recall at an instant “the longest river in the world, the climate of Perth, Australia, the population of India, or the major exports of Zaire” (Gould 1985, 5).


From grammars to readers

Notwithstanding the popularity of the catechetical geographical textbook, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors (and their publishers) were cognisant of the different requirements (and financial means) of their readers; experimentation in presentational form was commonplace, although the underlying geographical facts varied comparatively little between different books (Brückner 2006; Withers 2007). While the catechetical form was thought particularly appropriate to younger readers, other modes of presentation—most particularly the so-called ‘grammar’—were assumed to be better suited to older readers. The term ‘grammar’ was used to refer to a text that employed a form of systematic or methodical ordering of information to communicate the principles of the subject it described. Most often in works of geography this meant—in the tradition of special geography—the sequential description of countries under a set of common headings. The structuring of data in this way, as a gazetteer, was designed to allow for easy comparison between countries and to exemplify what types of knowledge counted as geographical.

Among the earliest geographical works to be presented in this form was Patrick Gordon’s 1693 Geography Anatomized: Or, A Compleat [sic] Geographical Grammer [sic]—a volume that partly employed tabulated lists to present readers with a “taxonomic world order that revolved around early modern nation-states” (Brückner 2006, 85). The organisational principles of geographical grammars varied considerably during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the generic distinction between them and catechisms often became blurred. In his study of nineteenth-century geographical textbooks issued by the London publisher Richard Phillips, Issitt (2000) has demonstrated the emergence of hybrid textual forms in this period. One of Phillips’ most profitable literary properties—An Easy Grammar of General Geography (Goldsmith 1803), which was printed in the tens of thousands annually for more than four decades—combined “a series of facts and definitions in numbered paragraphs”, in the grammatical tradition, with “a series of questions deigned to elicit the rote repetition of the original fact or definition” in the catechetical tradition (Issitt 2009, 6).

The generic hybridisation of geographical textbooks during the nineteenth century was, at least in part, driven by the frustration of educationalists who had come to identify the limitations of rote learning. For one, the New England educator and pastor Emerson Davis, “the object of teaching a child is not merely to impart knowledge; education does not consist in distending and cramming the memory; but in developing every faculty, and especially reason” (Davis 1839, 54). In this respect, texts in the catechetical tradition were found seriously lacking: “geographies have become scarcely any thing [sic] but a volume of questions, to be asked by the teacher and answered by the scholar…If the plan of such a book is undeviatingly followed, the memory of the child is exercised, but reason, the noblest faculty of the soul, remains untouched” (Davis 1839, 54–55).

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of geographical textbooks that employed narrative in order to capture young readers’ attention and to stimulate their imagination. Geographical ‘readers’, as they were termed, had “little in common with the exhaustive factual gazetteers” that preceded them; they employed instead a range of tropes from literary genres such as fairy tales and travel writing to communicate “geographical concepts, knowledge and skills in an enjoyable manner” (Ploszajska 1996). Historians of the genre have shown how the narratives employed in such ‘readers’ tended often (in the British case at least) to serve an imperial agenda that legitimised colonial policies and reinforced racial prejudices (Ploszajska 1999). Geographical textbooks had always been political; geographical ‘readers’ simply made that fact more visible.



By the end of the nineteenth century, geographical textbooks were so numerous and diverse in their generic form and spatial focus that Hugh Robert Mill, Librarian to the Royal Geographical Society, was commissioned by the Geographical Association to prepare a selected bibliography of “the best available books” (Mill 1897, 5). His Hints to Teachers and Students on the Choice of Geographical Books for Reference and Reading (Mill 1897) catalogued a rich and diverse landscape of print—textbooks in a variety of forms tailored to different audiences and age ranges. Nevertheless, Mill’s text pointed to a yet further pedagogical concern: that students (and their teachers) had become too reliant on textbooks. For Mill, textbooks should properly function as a foundation to learning rather than its single source. As he noted, “I am always inclined, when regulations do not forbid, to give higher marks [to students] for answers which could not be taken from any text-book, but are the result of the student’s own intelligence, finding facts in the course of general reading or personal observation” (Mill 1897, 23). The generic history of the geographical textbook is, in this sense, one inescapably bound up with wider pedagogical concerns; didactic traditions and trends, as much as the technologies and economics of publishing, have consistently serviced to determine form, content, and purpose.



Brückner M 2006 The Geographical Revolution in Early America UNC Press, Chapel Hill

de Blij H 2012 Why Geography Matters: More than Ever 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, New York

Clark G and Phillips A 2014 Book Publishing 5th ed. Routledge, Abingdon

Davis E 1839 The Teacher Taught; Or, The Principles and Modes of Teaching Marsh, Capen, Lyon, and Webb, Boston

Goldsmith J 1803 An Easy Grammar of General Geography Richard Phillips, London

Gordon P 1693 Geography Anatomized: Or, A Compleat Geographical Grammer Robert Morden and Thomas Cockerill, London

Gould P 1985 The Geographer at Work Routledge & Kegan Paul, London

H T 1712 A Short Way to Know the World: Or the Rudiments of Geography 2nd ed. Thomas Osborne, London

Hahn D 2015 Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature 2nd ed. Oxford, Oxford University Press

Issitt J 2000 The natural history of a textbook Publishing History 47 5–30

Lenglet du Fresnoy N 1737 The Geography of Children Edward Littleton and John Hawkins, London

Locke J 1693 Some Thoughts Concerning Education A and J Churchill, London

 Marsden B 2003 Geographical curriculum planning in evolution: some historical and international perspectives in Geber R ed. International Handbook on Geographical Education Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, 141–58

Marsden W E 2001 The School Textbook: Geography, History and Social Studies Abingdon, Routledge

Meriton G 1671 A Geographical Description of the World William Leake, London

Ploszajska T 1996 “Cloud Cuckoo Land?” Fact and fantasy in Geographical Readers, 1870–1944 Paradigm 21 ( Accessed 8 August 2016

Ploszajska T 1999 Geographical Education, Empire and Citizenship: Geographical Teaching and Learning in English Schools, 1870–1944 Royal Geographical Society, London

Roldán Vera E 2001 Reading in questions and answers: the catechism as an educational genre in early independent Spanish America Book History 4 17–48

Sitwell O F G 1993 Four Centuries of Special Geography UBC Press, Vancouver

Withers C W J 2001 Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland Since 1520 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Withers C W J 2007 Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason University of Chicago Press, Chicago


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