The Age of the Essay

My classmate Zach Lipton (the only person in my school who is also blogging) turned me on to a fantastic article titled The Age of the Essay which is now another arrow in my quiver on why there are some fundamental issues with the way education is approached. This article is about how writing skills and composition is intertwined with reading novels. Excerpts below:

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens…

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it….

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion– uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of “essay,” you can see where the conclusion comes from. It’s the concluding remarks to the jury….

Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought– but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. But don’t change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original….

Err on the side of the river. An essay is not a reference work. It’s not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don’t find it. I’d much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course.

I wish this thinking was mainstream, because at the moment I’m slaving my way through a boring Greek drama and yes, we will need to write a boring, old essay on it.

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