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September 2004Remember the essays you had to write in high school?Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion.But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones.
These earlier civilizations were so much more sophisticated that for the next several centuries the main work of European scholars, in almost every field, was to assimilate what they knew.
During this period the study of ancient texts acquired great prestige. As European scholarship gained momentum it became less and less important; by 1350 someone who wanted to learn about science could find better teachers than Aristotle in his own era. In the 19th century the study of ancient texts was still the backbone of the curriculum.
But Harvard didn't have a professor of English literature until 1876, and Oxford not till 1885. And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors.
(Oxford had a chair of Chinese before it had one of English.) What tipped the scales, at least in the US, seems to have been the idea that professors should do research as well as teach. The professors who taught math could be required to do original math, the professors who taught history could be required to write scholarly articles about history, but what about the professors who taught rhetoric or composition? This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that's what the professor is interested in. The seeds of our miserable high school experiences were sown in 1892, when the National Education Association "formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course."  The 'riting component of the 3 Rs then morphed into English, with the bizarre consequence that high school students now had to write about English literature-- to write, without even realizing it, imitations of whatever English professors had been publishing in their journals a few decades before.
With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years.
Around 1100, Europe at last began to catch its breath after centuries of chaos, and once they had the luxury of curiosity they rediscovered what we call "the classics." The effect was rather as if we were visited by beings from another solar system.The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure. So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Mods 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 don't change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original. 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. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. When friends came back from faraway places, it wasn't just out of politeness that I asked what they saw. And I found the best way to get information out of them was to ask what surprised them.How was the place different from what they expected? You can ask it of the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn't even know they were recording.The time was then ripe for the question: if the study of ancient texts is a valid field for scholarship, why not modern texts?The answer, of course, is that the original raison d'etre of classical scholarship was a kind of intellectual archaeology that does not need to be done in the case of contemporary authors.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? 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. But when you understand the origins of this sort of "essay," you can see where the conclusion comes from. 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.When I give a draft of an essay to friends, there are two things I want to know: which parts bore them, and which seem unconvincing. But I don't try to fix the unconvincing bits by arguing more cleverly. At the very least I must have explained something badly.Whether cause or effect, this spirit pervaded early universities.The study of rhetoric, the art of arguing persuasively, was a third of the undergraduate curriculum.