Notgrass Exploring World Geography

In the introduction to Exploring World Geography, author Ray Notgrass states that the main reason to learn geography is to be able to interact with people from other cultures responsibly and respectfully. Therefore, his approach isn't just to talk about physical geography, but to tie in elements of religion, worldview, customs, and political history in an attempt to prime students for future interactions. It's a noble goal, but proves challenging to execute.

Like all Notgrass programs, this one uses a multi-disciplinary approach. Students don't just study geography, they memorize Bible verses, write research papers, read literature, and more. While you don't have to use it this way, the intention is that this one-year course will provide high school students with one geography/history credit, one English credit, and one Bible credit per semester (two semesters per school year). There's enough worldview content to justify the Bible credits, but you'll want to do more for English.

How Does This Work?

Exploring World Geography is intended for high school students, and can be used before, after, or between Exploring World History and Exploring America. At the center is a two-volume textbook with lesson plans, assignments, and text for students to read. The hardcover texts are beautifully illustrated with full-color photographs, maps, and artwork. The hardcover Exploring World Geography Gazetteer is similarly illustrated and includes vital facts about each country along with some primary source documents in the back.

A total of 30 units (14 in Volume 1, 16 in Volume 2), each with five lessons, provide daily work for two semesters over a normal 32-week school year. Each unit focuses on a particular geographical region, and begins with a memory verse, a list of books needed, instructions for the unit project (sometimes there are multiple options to choose from), and when applicable an introduction to the supplemental literature reading for that unit.

Lessons are usually 4-6 pages, and cover physical characteristics, demographics, ethnic traits, politics, religion, and more. Students read the text, and then complete the assignments. Assignments can include readings from the Exploring World Geography Gazetteer, map skills exercises, answering worldview questions, working on the unit project, supplemental literature readings, and student review questions. If your student does everything, they could easily spend 2-3 hours on this program every school day (again, they can just read the textbook and answer the questions, they don't need to complete all the assignments).

There are two main ways to study geography: physical geography looks at the land itself (mountains, rivers, climate, etc.), while human geography focuses on people groups, cultures, religion and politics, etc. Ray Notgrass employs both approaches here, with special focus on how both aspects of geography have affected the human story around the world. For instance, how food is grown in a particular area will affect the people who live there just as much as the ideas that form their worldview, and will even contribute to the formulation and evolution of that worldview.

In addition to geography instruction, Notgrass spends considerable time providing writing instruction (including how to write a research paper) and basic principles of literary analysis. This is helpful if you haven't covered such topics with your students yet, but it's far from a complete treatment. The worldview instruction is a major component of the program—it's not a stretch to award one Bible credit per semester for this aspect of the course.

There are two additional student books: a Student Review Book which includes map skills and literary analysis exercises for each unit, and short answer questions for each lesson; and a Quiz and Exam Book which includes unit quizzes, geography exams, English exams, and worldview exams. A Guide for Parents and Answer Key provides answers to questions in both books, as well as a guide for implementing the curriculum and additional notes for the supplementary literature readings.

The supplemental literature titles are meant to provide extra background through a firsthand sense of place and culture. The titles are a mix of fiction and nonfiction; Know Why You Believe by Paul Little is a worldview introduction. The twelve titles are as follows:

  • Know Why You Believe by Paul Little (Units 1-2)
  • Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour with David Hazard (Units 3-4)
  • Patricia St. John Tells Her Own Story by Patricia St. John (Units 5-7)
  • A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (Unit 8)
  • The Day the World Stopped Turning by Michael Morpurgo (Units 10-11)
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (Units 12-13)
  • Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat (Units 14-15)
  • Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth (Units 16-17)
  • Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (Units 18-19)
  • Ann Judson: A Missionary Life for Burma by Sharon James (Units 20-21)
  • The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (Units 24-25)
  • Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger (Units 27-28)

Our Honest Opinion:

The interdisciplinary approach is well established in home school circles. It's a good way to make the study of any subject more complete and interesting. By engaging students on a variety of levels, and by showing the connections between different subjects, students are not only more likely to retain information, they're better able to think objectively about what they're learning and form their own judgments about the content.

Unfortunately, inaccuracies or subjective interpretations within the curriculum itself can also render those benefits less valuable. Don't get us wrong—there's plenty of good content here, and students will certainly learn about the world around them. Our concern has more to do with particulars and nuance, as well as the way the author's own views color his presentation of the information. Notgrass is clearly a Western Protestant, and this, though never clearly stated, determines what he writes and how he writes it.

For example, in the chapter on Islam (page 150 of Volume 1), Notgrass states, "Muhammad believed that Allah gave him permission to use force to convert unbelievers. He called this effort at persuasion jihad or holy war." This is a misrepresentation of the actual teaching of Muhammad in particular and Islam in general. Jihad, according to those who practice it, is holy struggle and begins with the individual practitioner—holy war can only truly be understood in this context. We are not advocates for Islam, but we do not believe it is possible to legitimately offer a critique of any belief system based on a faulty presentation of that system. It's interesting to note that, while there are sources listed for most lessons in the back of the book, there are no sources listed for the Islam chapter (or for most of the other chapters concerning world religions).

There are other concerns throughout the student text, many stemming from Notgrass's presentation of his own view of Christianity as the only correct one. In the units on Eastern Europe and Russia, there are a handful of passing references to the Orthodox Church, but no description of what it is or in-depth analysis of how its existence and presence in Ukraine and Russia have shaped the people and events of those lands. Communism, on the other hand, is given quite a bit of space. There's no mention of Orthodoxy in the sections on Greece or the Middle East, either.

One particularly odd statement comes in Volume 2 of the student text on page 501: "The Bible teaches that God is sovereign, holy, complete, and eternal; whereas evil is a lesser power and is partial and temporary." The statements about God are obviously true and held in common by all Christians. The statement about evil, however, smacks a little of Manicheanism—while evil is certainly real, it is not a thing in itself. God did not create evil, and therefore to call it a "force" sounds a bit too much like giving it status as an object.

This is the first edition of Exploring World Geography. It is our hope that future versions will be revised and some of these problematic aspects resolved. As we mentioned before, there's a lot to be said for the multi-disciplinary approach, and this will provide students with a basic overview of world geography. However, we have some serious reservations about the way the information is presented and which content is included and what is left out.

While you can technically use Exploring World Geography at any high school level, we recommend it for freshmen (9th grade) and not for older students. If you're looking for a really solid human geography program from a Christian perspective, we recommend Cultural Geography for 9th grade from Bob Jones Press. For an excellent physical geography program, we recommend Welcome to the Wonderful World of Geography by Brenda Runkle.

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