My school is going through textbook adoption, a process in which we analyze books and support materials until they all blur together. Then as a department, 12 vastly different, opinionated professionals try to agree on which is best for our students. It is a process best approached with equal amounts of patience and aspirin.
During Spring Break I reviewed a textbook I have at home. Its short stories include "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Red-Headed League," "The Devil and Daniel Webster," and "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," staples of American high school English textbooks. Its poetry includes Tennyson's classic, "Ulysses," and poetry by John Masefield, Sara Teasdale, A. E. Housman, and Edgar Lee Masters. It includes a copy of Julius Caesar, suggesting it may originally have been intended for a 10th grade classroom. Questions for writing or discussion appear at the end of each selection, and the end of each chapter suggests activities to tie the selections together.
The book is dated 1941.
As my aunt sat in her high school English class studying from this book, the world was recovering from a Great Depression and was embroiled in World War II. Her teachers were trying to prepare her for participation in a future they could only guess at. It would include television, men walking on the moon, CAT scans, and cell phones.
Many of the same selections and teaching strategies from 61 years ago appear in our new textbooks. As before, teachers today prepare the next generation for a future we can only guess at.
Reading, writing, speaking, and critical thinking are still the fundamental skills that will get students through whatever they encounter as adults. When I look at that old textbook, I feel linked to the past and a little more confident about trying to prepare my students for the future.
One final note: my aunt's textbook, hardback, 682 pages, cost $1.84. Some things really HAVE changed.