"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, June 7, 2010

English class is killing the essay

My parent's generation called them "themes." Students hate to write them. Teachers hate to read them. Brief expository pieces of writing on a subject usually specified by the teacher, set out in a strictly structured format, with all passion and color drained away to make way for rational "on the one hand--on the other hand" sort of blather that students have been taught to believe the teacher will like. No one will ever read them except the teacher, who regrets the forever-irretrievable 20 minutes of his life he spends reading and commenting on this (usually) drivel. Incidentally, a lot of this has been perpetuated by the standardized testing which requires working strictly to formula so as to be evaluated in an economically feasible fashion. (Essays on standardized tests are, we are told, graded in two minutes or less. This is what we are doing to writing in order to dance to the political music today.)

How to did such a great and noble art form get dragged down to this level? We don't define painting by what we did with acrylics in 2nd grade? Why is the word "essay" confined to this horrid exercise? My simple answer is that our students have never read great essays.

I discovered the form via Benchley, Thurber and Perelman. And while I don't imagine those writers will mean a lot to our students (well, maybe Thurber), but they do enjoy David Sedaris, who has the benefit of performing his works aloud very well (a la Benchley). As time went on I became interested in more serious practitioners of the form, such as Ian Frazier, E.B. White (pictured above), I.F. Stone, A.J. Liebling (who is perhaps more of a journalist), Joseph Mitchell and Lewis Thomas. In time I stumbled over Virginia Woolf (A Room of One's Own being a seminal feminist work), Emerson, Thoreau, Twain (I love his travel books), Orwell, Swift, DeTocqueville and Montaigne. (I confess I have never been able to really make my way through Montesquieu or Macauley, who are supposed to be the true giants.) An extensive collection of public domain essays can be found here.

I am a bit handicapped with many of the major 18th and 19th century essayists, as their given subject is literature itself, in which I am not as deeply read as the average writer of that era, plus I'm just not interested in reading about reading. (This is a peculiarity of writers. There are not, to my knowledge, a lot of music about music or paintings about paintings. Only writers can't resist the temptation to overthink it.)

Far more interesting to me is a Malcolm Gladwell, who writes about science and sociology or a Michael Lewis, who writes about two of the most popular subjects of the day, money and sports (he is author of the book The Blind Side).

Blogger Paul Graham, whose site I've commented on before, writes eloquently about the things called "essays" we had to write (and which I now have to read) for school, which students treat like bodily waste--to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible and never looked at; and the difference between those things and actual essays. He gives some tips and pointers on how to think about them and how to go about writing them, as in this central passage:

To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called "essais." He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don't know yet. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne's great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That's why I write them.

In the things you write in school you are, in theory, merely explaining yourself to the reader. In a real essay you're writing for yourself. You're thinking out loud.

You can read the entire piece here.

This age of bloggers is, of course, a new golden age for the essay, or if not the essay, what The New Yorker called "a casual." 1 I have a few blogs I check in on regularly, and I encourage students to develop their own list. The great improvement of the internet is that one can not only comment, but the comments can develop into their own dialogue; a virtual salon that 18th-century belletrists could only envy.

We really should come up with another name of those things we call "essay questions" or the 5-paragraph essay that is required for standardized tests. I nominate the term squonkle, which, as far as I can tell, means nothing. I think that makes it eminently suitable.

I expect a 1000-word squonkle on this blog post by Wednesday start of class, no excuses.
1 The term casual was used by Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, to refer to "fiction and humorous pieces of all kinds", and "indicated Ross's determination to give the magazine an offhand, chatty, informal quality". Thurber, James, The Years With Ross, 1959 ISBN 0-06-095971-1, pg. 13. - Wikipedia

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