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

Elizabeth Zold

Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Works in the High School Literature Textbook

To make sense of Defoe's place in the secondary school English classroom, some context is needed on the format and overall content of these textbooks. First, the four British literature high school textbooks under discussion are prepared for senior high school students and thus aim to teach higher-order critical thinking skills such as analysis, critique, and evaluation. Second, all four textbooks are organized chronologically, although the Holt (2009) gives instructors various other organizational schema, such as genre and theme, and provides lists of the texts divided accordingly.1 The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are consistently grouped in the same unit, with date ranges from 1625–1798 (Prentice Hall), 1640–1780 (Glencoe), and 1660–1800 (Holt 2005, 2009). Within these larger units, the texts are often grouped under smaller headings, which may be generic like Holt's (2009) "The Rise of the Novel," topical like Holt's (2005) "Political Points of View," or specifically historical like Glencoe's "The English Enlightenment and Neoclassicism" and Prentice Hall's "A Nation Divided." In addition, several of the textbooks contain special sections in which students are asked to compare literary works, including texts from other time periods or other parts of the world.

Although the emphasis on the historical nature of the literature is apparent in the overall chronological schema, such a range of organizational strategies within the units increases the possibility that students will encounter seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British texts in a variety of contexts. This emphasis is reinforced at the opening of each unit, which provides a timeline and introductory essay on important world and literary events of the period, giving students a broader historical perspective in which to view the literature. Each of the textbooks covers the English Civil War, the Restoration, the Enlightenment, and major trends in literature, and each touches on religious issues and cultural values of the period. While the various introductions highlight certain events and ideas more than others, there is an overall importance placed on situating the texts in the unit within a specific historical framework.

There seems to be a standard collection of core writers and works in all four textbooks, many of which are cited in Applebee's study: Swift's Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal, Pepys's Diary, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, and Pope's The Rape of the Lock.2 The other works included vary widely from textbook to textbook. In the Holt (2005) edition, the only Defoe text used is his essay "The Education of Women" and the only Swift text is A Modest Proposal. The Holt (2009) edition, however, adds excerpts from A Journal of the Plague Year and Gulliver's Travels while retaining the other pieces by Swift and Defoe. As such, Holt seems to adopt the core set of texts of British literature for students in their newest edition, and Glencoe and Prentice Hall's lists mirror these. In addition, from its 2005 edition to the 2009 edition, Holt added considerably to its selection of eighteenth-century literature, expanding what was a very small group of excerpts to one comparable to the others.3 It is not clear exactly how these "standard" texts were chosen, although, as I will explore shortly, these texts are fragmented narratives and easily segmented, making them easier to excerpt.4
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