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Reading Daniel Defoe in Twenty-First Century American High School Textbooks

Elizabeth Zold

The Literature Textbook in the High School Classroom

EARLY in the semester, a student in my course on eighteenth-century British women's travel narratives stated that Jane Austen should be on the syllabus because Austen "wrote old literature too." This comment prompted a class discussion on how surprised many students were, upon taking the class, to learn that there were so many early-modern British women writers. In speaking with colleagues about this seemingly common misconception, others came to light: students often refer to works written before 1800, for example, as "Old English," especially if those works retain their original orthography or punctuation. Moreover, students frequently fail to differentiate between literary genres or understand when they emerged, were popular, or faded: for example, some students identify epic poems like Beowulf or travel narratives like Lady Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters as novels, a catch-all term for lengthier works. Furthermore, these students can be reluctant to change their conception of early literature and culture.

These discussions with colleagues about freshmen's misconceptions of literature written before the twentieth century, along with concerns about students' inability to engage critically with that literature, led to my interest in how high school British-literature textbooks represent early literary works, specifically seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poetry and prose. A review and critical analysis of high school literature anthologies provided evidence to explain the disconnect between the high school and college literature classrooms and to clarify the nature of the obstacles faced by first-year students attempting to produce sophisticated analyses of early-modern literary works in a postsecondary context. From misrepresentations of texts and literary history to lack of promotion of critical thinking and literary analysis, the content of these textbooks makes it clear that first-year college students taking courses in literature from the Anglo-Saxon through the Victorian periods must undergo a paradigm shift, a process that involves overcoming resistance to a different version or conceptualization of what they already believe they know, as well as gathering new skills for learning.

This essay analyzes four high school literature textbooks currently in use, focusing on their treatment of Daniel Defoe and his works as a case study. It does so in order to establish how these textbooks represent seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature, to catalogue textbook-related problems experienced by first-year students enrolled in postsecondary British literature courses, and to propose strategies that can be implemented by college English faculty to help incoming students overcome obstacles in reading and analyzing literature.

Textbooks, generally presented to students as authoritative and objective sources of facts, are often the primary source of teaching material in the high school classroom (Sosniak and Perlman; Applebee). With large budget cuts to education throughout the United States, and funds for supplementary books and materials drying up, textbooks are likely to continue to function as the primary learning tool in the high school setting. However, as Christine E. Sleeter and Carl A. Grant warn in their article on the marginalization of minority groups in textbooks, these sources frequently provide students with "only one version of reality. That version embodies certain interests, reifies certain interpretations and value judgments, and gives prominence to some pieces of knowledge while rendering others invisible" (97). Certainly, not all students will accept or cling to this single version of reality; however, the textbook can still distort the perception of resistant readers, since "it withholds, obscures, and renders unimportant many ideas and areas of knowledge" (Sleeter and Grant 97). As such, it is not surprising that students may initially oppose new readings or different interpretations of texts or feel intellectually threatened when asked to consider a new framework for a work of literature that unsettles the paradigm acquired from high school literary textbooks.

In a comprehensive study of textbooks conducted in the 1990s, involving seven different textbook series used in grades 7 through 12, Arthur Applebee found that for 63 percent of the public high school classes and for almost 80 percent of the Catholic high school classes studied, the textbook is the main source of classroom material ("Literature Instruction" 54). Examining the content of these textbooks, Applebee noted that the material in many British literature textbooks assigned to juniors and seniors is arranged chronologically, whereas the textbooks for grades 7 through 10 are typically arranged according to genre ("High School Literature Anthologies" 8). 97 percent of the selections in the textbooks are contextualized by a brief biography of the author, and 93 percent of the British literature textbooks provided additional social or historical background for students (37). Most relevant to this study are the most commonly anthologized works of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature, with numbers after each title indicating in how many of the seven different textbook series they appear: The Diary of Samuel Pepys (7), The Life of Samuel Johnson (7), Gulliver’s Travels (6), A Journal of the Plague Year (5), and A Modest Proposal (4) ("High School Literature Anthologies" 64–65). With the exception of A Modest Proposal, these texts are presented to students as excerpts from the original

Because the presentation of literary texts has an immediate impact on how students learn to read and analyze those works, it is essential that postsecondary instructors become familiar with the kind of knowledge these textbooks are, or are not, teaching. As A. Graham Down of the Council for Basic Education notes, "Textbooks, for better or worse, dominate what students learn. They set the curriculum, and often the facts learned, in most subjects. For many students, textbooks are their first and sometimes only early exposure to books and to reading" (viii). Since textbooks hold such an authoritative position in high school courses, it is imperative that postsecondary instructors investigate what these books teach students during earlier stages of their education. Evaluating the standard literature anthologies used to educate high school students in early-modern British literature, with a focus on excerpt selection, authorial biographies, and historical topics discussed in relation to the selections, will elucidate the types of skill sets that most first-year students bring to the college classrooms, thereby identifying the kinds of skills that must be mastered if students are to succeed in the college literature classroom.

While Applebee and others provide an overview of literature textbooks, this essay, as noted earlier, focuses on a specific case study, that of Daniel Defoe and the excerpts of his works A Journal of the Plague Year and "The Education of Women" in four standard literature textbooks currently in use at the secondary level that are produced by three prominent publishers: Holt's Elements of Literature: Essentials of British and World Literature (2005), Holt's Elements of Literature: Essentials of British and World Literature Teacher Wraparound Edition (2009), Prentice Hall Literature: The British Tradition (2007), and Glencoe's The Reader's Choice: British Literature Teacher Wraparound Edition (2007). I analyze how these textbooks situate Defoe and his works by first answering a series of questions:

1. Which of Defoe's works are selected for inclusion in the textbook and which portions of those works are reproduced?
2. What historical and cultural information is provided in the introduction and notes to frame the excerpts of Defoe works?
3. Which literary works by other authors are paired with excerpts from Defoe's works?
4. How is Defoe presented as an author in the paratextual matter that surrounds the excerpts from his works?

I then consider how the various elements used to situate Defoe and his works in these textbooks combine to construct a distinct version of the life and writings of one literary figure in particular as well as of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors more generally. I also identify the skills that students learn, and fail to learn, through the reading and analysis of these contextualized excerpts. Continue . . .

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