Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Article of the Day: The Age of the Essay

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 4, 2010

Another wonderful Paul Graham essay. This one is about high school essays.

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Graham explains that the reason why high schoolers write essays about literature is because, a few hundred years ago, literature and essays got merged into one subject. And the reason that all essays must take a position and defend it is that essays were originally written in law school.

If we step outside of these restraints, what is the ideal essay like? What kinds of essays should teachers assign? First, there’s nothing wrong with assigning essays where one analyzes a piece of literature. Considering how students are frequently already studying literature, it’s a rather convenient topic. But there are certainly other topics out there. In addition, not all essays need to take a side and defend it. (Read Graham’s essay for more about this.) Essays could be explorations of the literature; the student would learn just as much, if not more.

Students should be given the opportunity to write essays about exploration. I have rarely gotten these sorts of chances in school. But if you read some of the longer essays on my blog, you may notice that I propose something, play around with it, maybe reject it and expand on it more. Then I go on to the next idea. This is because I am not planning these essays out in advance. I just write as I go; and I get my thoughts organized in a nice, convenient format. My school essays are completely different: focused, rigorously organized, and, if you ask me, a lot more boring.

Not that there is a problem with persuasive essays. They’re great. But, as Graham pointed out, being right is more important than being able to argue well (at least in school). So why do we learn how to take a strong with-us-or-against-us position and defend it to the death, but we don’t write essays where we explore the answers in a much more open way?

I propose that traditional English classes spend one month per semester working on writing essays. Perhaps throughout the year there are essays written about the literature being read, but during these blocks, there is a greater focus on writing quality essays. And to better enrich the minds of the students, these essays should be more about searching for the truth than about arguing a point. Perhaps the teacher can come with a list of widely varied topics, or let the students choose their own topics, or both. Students can write essays in response to other essays. (Which happens to be what I’m doing right now.)

I haven’t been writing essays on my blog for all that long. Before my blog, I practically never wrote essays outside of school. Now, I write them all the time; I’m still relatively new at it, though. Yet I keep doing it. Probably the reason I keep doing it is that writing essays gets thoughts into writing and helps me to thing more thoughts. When I write essays, I think of ideas as I go. Just sitting and thinking does not work quite so well.

Another aspect of writing essays that may seems trivial — but definitely is not — is that when I write essays, I stay focused on the essay. Simply sitting and thinking is not enough for some sorts of things, because I will get too distracted. But when I’m writing an essay I can focus on the topic at hand and actually come up with some pretty good ideas.

I want other students to feel this. School is about learning, right? It’s about the development of ideas? What better way to develop one’s ideas than to write essays? But I fear that the current restrictions placed on essays will leave many students dissatisfied, and they will leave school disliking essays, never realizing how useful and fun they can be.

I never truly appreciated essays until I started reading Paul Graham. This man writes about topics that I actually care about. When I read his essays, I learn something. That may be a lot of the problem with essay-reading: students read essays about topics that they don’t care about, or they read essays that don’t teach them anything. This is not how a good essay should go. A good essay should be informative and fun; also, as Graham pointed out in his own essay about essays, when you read an essay you should be surprised. A good essay is one that teaches you something, or makes you think in a new way.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

I certainly can get behind that advice. The problem with school is that you’re supposed to do what you’re told, pretty much by definition, which makes it hard to write truly good essays. I know that I have never written a truly good essay for any school assignment (by my personal standards); probably the best school essay I’ve ever written is one at the beginning of this year where we had to turn in some sort of writing sample so that the teacher could get to know our writing styles, and I turned in an essay that I had written for my blog. So even that one wasn’t really written for school.

To add on to Graham’s advice: when you write an essay, don’t write it because someone else told you to. Write for yourself. Other people may learn something by reading your essay, but the person who learns the most is you. I find that you can come up with much better ideas by writing essays than simply by thinking, and this is what can really make the art of essay-writing a fruitful one.

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One Response to “Article of the Day: The Age of the Essay”

  1. Dave said

    VERY well said, Michael. It’s this kind of thoughtful criticism that has a chance of making real difference. Keep it up.

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