Monday, September 6, 2004

The Age of the Essay

Paul Graham:

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.

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Paul Graham's essay is simply inflammatory. First of all, since when did essay-writing in school involve exclusively literary analysis? In junior high and high school, I wrote many essays on topics that didn't involve literature. Second, he seems to want to attribute a boring writing style to the heritage of literary analysis, and that simply doesn't follow at all; boring literary criticism is just as much a failure as a boring "essay" (as he defines the genre). Third, does he really have the authority to write, "a real essay doesn't take a position and then defend it"? There are many types of essays: that is one of them, and another is the kind that Montaigne wrote, i.e. writing as process. Finally, he seems to ignore the history of rhetoric when he writes, "Good writing should be convincing, certainly, but it should be convincing because you got the right answers, not because you did a good job of arguing" (perhaps he should learn something about the Sophists). To my mind, Graham didn't get the right answers in his essay, and he didn't do a very good job of arguing, either.

1. My personal experience backs up Graham's idea that most writing instruction in school is joined to the study of literature. I did write some essays in history classes, but those were supposed to follow an even more rigid structure than what Graham describes. They mostly involved filling in the blanks with the proper facts. They didn't teach how to write or how to make an argument. Even in English class, the focus was mostly on the literature, not on the writing. So I certainly agree that schools need to do a better job of teaching students how to write.

2. I think the two main points here were (a) that some students find writing boring because it's linked to topics that they find boring, and (b) that writing itself isn't really being taught. It's not that literature is bad, but that English departments now teach it almost to the exclusion of writing and rhetoric.

3. Agreed.

4. What did he ignore? What don't you like about the quoted statement?

I had a liberal arts field of study, three majors, as an undergrad. I don't recall any special emphasis on an emphasis related to the study of literature. Essays written in history and philosophy, for example, had no such bias. I also saw no bias then or now in the essays written by grad level students in areas other than English, including the social sciences such as psychology and sociology. Quite frankly I don't see where this essay is coming from or the point author is trying to make,

If anything my impression is that today's high school and undergraduate students receive very little, or inadquate, training at all in the art of the essay. Possibly Graham should go back to Boswell and the classic writers of the essay, up through and including Menchen and others. I started to reread the item a second time but rejected the idea as a waste of time.

I don't seem to be that far out of agreement with "Michael." Overall my impression is that there's been a general deterioration in the art of essay writing in the modern era, going back 40 or 50 years. Instructiion in the basics of good communications in writing, including the essay, much like the basics in other areas, seems to have dropped by the way side as education tries to accomodate so many other disciplines, although moreso at the pre-college level. Unfortunately by the time a student reaches college it's a bit too late to start learning how to write.

Today's writing skills strike me as falling in the pattern of email writing. One sentence is used in the email. The student can rarely think, or write, more than two decent sentences in an essay or theme. While the basics of introduction, body, and conclusion are hammered at students in most freshman and sophomore level English classes, it's by then too late. Those basics should be understood by students no later than age 15 (or thereabouts) so that they can refine and improve their writing skills. Instead I too often see an attempt to ape the structure of a story in journalistic style (but which fails at that as well). Students throw the thesis, conclusion, or main idea at the reader at the beginning, then tail off with something that's supposed to support that thesis.

But unlike professional journalists, they have no idea how to support a structure of that kind. The usual problem they have, and also the one in the mediocre text we find in online "news site" journalism is that the writer, not really knowing or understanding the topic in many cases, starts out with the heart of the issue, the thesis or main theme, but totally fails to provide supporting information which will support the main claim made in that first thesis and has a tendency to wander freely across the countryside on totally unrelated topics.

Some of these internet writer types exemplify the worst in today's writing. The fact that they lay claim, in a few instances, to actual degrees in print journalism, says something about the quality and sad state of journalism as well as the essay in English today.

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