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

Elizabeth Zold

"The Education of Women" in the High School Literature Textbook

The inclusion in the Holt 2005 and 2009 textbooks of the essay "The Education of Women" is somewhat surprising, given the many more famous Defoe texts to choose from (it did not make any of the "most anthologized works" lists in Applebee's textbook study); but what is frustrating about its inclusion is that parts are omitted and the introductory essay lacks contextualization. The same sections of the essay are presented in each edition, and the excerpt goes through the same modernization process as A Journal of the Plague Year.

On the content level, the essay is problematic in several ways. First, it was originally a part of Defoe's An Essay upon Projects (1697) and was titled "An Academy for Women." Certainly, as the original title suggests, Defoe's main argument in this essay was not just for the education of women but for the establishment of their own academy. In the Holt textbooks, however, large portions of the essay related to such an academy have been omitted; these omissions are marked by ellipses throughout the excerpt. Second, since neither edition states that this essay was originally part of a larger work with a different name, students would not be able to find the essay should they want to read it in its entirety: a Google search of "The Education of Women" by Daniel Defoe yields virtually the same excerpt that is in their textbooks.7

Third, the end of Defoe's essay is altered in a way that changes both the main thought with which Defoe meant to leave his readers and the essay's place within the framework of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century culture. In the Holt textbooks, the essay ends with an anecdote from Defoe informing the reader about a woman who laments her lack of schooling and is ashamed to speak to her maid because she does not know whether what she says is right or wrong. The essay abruptly ends with the single line: "'Tis a thing will be more easily granted than remedied..." (2005, 497; 2009, 676). Because of the material that has been excised from the Holt editions, there appears to be no direct referents for "'tis" and "thing." However, Defoe's complete last paragraph reads, "I need not enlarge on the Loss of the Defect of Education is to the Sex, nor argue the Benefit of the contrary Practice; 'tis a thing will be more easily granted than remedied: This Chapter is but an Essay at the thing, and I refer the Practice to those Happy Days, if they ever shall be, when men shall be wise enough to mend it" (Defoe, Essays 304). When read within the original context, the referents for "'tis" and "thing" are apparent. While the ending in the textbooks leaves the readers with a sense that Defoe was hopeless about when this would come to fruition, Defoe's full ending is clear about what needs to happen to bring about change. In some ways, Defoe ends by calling men to action, which makes sense within the larger scope of the original essay: in the sections omitted from the textbook, he outlines fairly explicitly how an academy for women should be set up. Students who read only those parts of the essay pertaining strictly to how and why women should be educated lose half of Defoe's main argument. While some of his ideas for setting up the rules for the academy (e.g., "An Act of Parliament shou'd make it Felony without Clergy, for any man to enter by Force or Fraud into the House, or to solicit any Woman, tho' it were to Marry, while she was in the House" [291]), might seem outlandish to students, they provide an excellent way to broaden discussions of women's roles in society at the time. Therefore, in addition to depriving students of a sense of how extended arguments are constructed, removing these sections ensures that students do not have an accurate picture of Defoe's argument and its place within a larger conceptual framework on the role of women in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Holt focuses students on a rhetorical reading of Defoe's argument. Unfortunately, the editors of the Holt (2005) textbook frequently interrupt the text with leading questions enclosed in bright yellow boxes, such as "What conclusion does Defoe draw about the true reason for the neglect of women’s education?" and "Do you detect any subtle biases against women in Defoe’s argument?" (497). Instead of having students analyze the text in order to discover for themselves any "subtle biases" in the essay, these questions strongly imply that they already exist and that students can simply look for and identify them. As a result, students are not given the chance to practice analyzing the text from their own perspective; the questions shape how they think about the essay, and Defoe's strategies are synthesized and named for them. Because these questions appear within the larger text of Defoe's work, students are compelled to at least skim them, thereby reading Defoe's work through the editors' interpretive lens, not their own. That the questions actually invade the text is troubling because they interrupt the reader's flow of thought. Experienced readers learn to ask and answer their own questions through engagement with the text, not through engagement with someone else's questions. Perhaps the Holt (2005) page setup would be useful for younger readers, like high school freshman, but this textbook is written for seniors; these "helpful" questions do not facilitate the skills needed for the college classroom, where students are expected to read a text and analyze it without the benefit of a reading guide.
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