Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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From Reading to Writing: Why the Essay isn’t Working

Posted: Jun 01, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 01, 2013 13:06

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Academic literature is rife with conflicting reports on the nature of the five paragraph essay. Discourses from composition professors, high school teachers, and disgruntled students cover the pages of journals and blogs, offering up heavy-handed insights about the benefits and tyrannies of the typical five paragraph format. Many praise the formulaic model that allows for expansion and embellishment, while others disparage it as the ultimate indignity in stifling any creative impulses a student may have had. So what then, is to be the consensus?

I wanted to examine the origins of the form, and hopefully tie it to its modern instructional methods. Most associate the origins of the essay with the 16th century author Montaigne, who provided the name for the genre when he described his literary experiments as essai, the French verb meaning loosely “to try” (Atwan 110). Montaigne classified his works by no other category, but simply by their common attempt to engage critical thought and the processes of questioning and answering. Yet, the deviation from this original and idealized model in students’ writing today is startlingly clear. But that is something we already knew, as the whole goal of this project is to try to examine from where this disparity originates.

These days, loose and undefined attempts at critical thought are not what students are asked to write in the classroom. In Atwan’s article, “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay,” I found a statement that neatly reiterates something I wrote a few weeks ago: “[i]n short, they were asked to read essays but required to write compositions” (113). He is talking about the obvious disconnect between the true and vibrant essays that make up the academic canon and the simply formulaic models students are asked to produce in a poor form of mimicry. The serious disparity between the literature that students read and what they are expected to write is indicative of a much larger problem.

In discussing the exercise of essay writing in schools, G. Kim Blank suggests that:

[t]he practice, hustled from its German origins early in the 20th century, began earnestly enough: It was one way for students to demonstrate that they could absorb what they had read, a form fairly close to what we now call a research paper. The practice exploded in the second half of the century, and it continues today, having also devolved into variations of the now ubiquitous five-paragraph essay.

But here is where the misadventure begins: While the research or term paper and its spinoffs had the good intention to show that a student had assimilated material—that is, that the student could think, not to mention read—today its function revolves around whether the student can write. (1)

If this is really the case, it has massive implications for the teaching paradigm. If this shift is truly exemplified within the education system, it makes perfect sense that students have trouble thinking critically about what they read. What was originally created to determine reading comprehension is now used to measure writing ability. The focus on critical thinking skills that it was meant to teach are now suspiciously absent, and even more disconcertingly, what has taken its place?. In high school, students are taught how to write an essay, not to critically think through its parameters. We teach students to write the five paragraph essay, not the essay in its original form, which was really a “thinking-through”, and an attempt at understanding.

How many high school teachers mark essays based on comprehension of the material? They are marked based on the defensibility of the thesis, and the argument’s execution. This is where the fundamental disparity lies, and what needs to be addressed if students are to approach secondary education more fully prepared for the engagement and critical thinking that is required of them at this level.

Works Cited

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.” River Teeth 14.1 (2012): 109–117. Web.

Blank, G. Kim. “Let’s Kill the Term Paper – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.

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