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

Elizabeth Zold


Although the present study is narrow in its scope, there are some overarching patterns in the way that secondary-school textbooks present seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors and their literary works, explaining why there is a disconnect between the skills we expect students to learn in high school literature classes and the skills with which they enter our first-year British literature college classrooms. First, high school students are exposed to modernized versions of early-modern texts, never gaining access to the spelling, capitalization, italicization, and punctuation practices of the period that are critical elements of style. Second, students, for the most part, only encounter small portions of early-modern texts that are often excerpted in such a way as to oversimplify or distort the content of the entire work from which the selection is taken. Third, students are provided with one view of early-modern authors, their texts, and their historical and cultural contexts, which is presented as authoritative and definitive. Ideological forces that inform the viewpoint taken by editors of the textbook are hidden behind the guise of authoritative objectivity (which, ironically, is a notion that often presents itself in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature). Fourth, textbook editors walk students through a piece, asking leading questions that summarize and synthesize the excerpted material for the student rather than fostering a general spirit of critical or analytical inquiry. As a result, resistance, confusion, and/or opposition to a range of alternate readings often occur because students have not been required to conduct certain kinds of intellectual work, or they have been taught a particular version of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature. However, knowledge of the material encountered by students in the high school literature classroom can improve instructors' understanding of the information and skill sets with which students come to college, preparing literature instructors to teach them seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature more effectively in first-year college literature courses. Continue . . .

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