Essays Should Not Need to Argue a Point

The Age of the Essay

September 2004

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.

Oy. So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one.


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 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.

With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.

How did things get this way? 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. 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. It seemed the essence of what scholars did. 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. [1] But schools change slower than scholarship. In the 19th century the study of ancient texts was still the backbone of the curriculum.

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. But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer. The archaeological work being mostly done, it implied that those studying the classics were, if not wasting their time, at least working on problems of minor importance.

And so began the study of modern literature. There was a good deal of resistance at first. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones. Dartmouth, the University of Vermont, Amherst, and University College, London taught English literature in the 1820s. But Harvard didn't have a professor of English literature until 1876, and Oxford not till 1885. (Oxford had a chair of Chinese before it had one of English.) [2]

What tipped the scales, at least in the US, seems to have been the idea that professors should do research as well as teach. This idea (along with the PhD, the department, and indeed the whole concept of the modern university) was imported from Germany in the late 19th century. Beginning at Johns Hopkins in 1876, the new model spread rapidly.

Writing was one of the casualties. Colleges had long taught English composition. But how do you do research on composition? 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? What should they do research on? The closest thing seemed to be English literature. [3]

And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors. 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.

High schools imitate universities. 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." [4] 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.

It's no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we're now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.

No Defense

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn't take a position and then defend it. That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins.

It's often mistakenly believed that medieval universities were mostly seminaries. In fact they were more law schools. And at least in our tradition lawyers are advocates, trained to take either side of an argument and make as good a case for it as they can. 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. [5] And after the lecture the most common form of discussion was the disputation. This is at least nominally preserved in our present-day thesis defense: most people treat the words thesis and dissertation as interchangeable, but originally, at least, a thesis was a position one took and the dissertation was the argument by which one defended it.

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It's not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can't change the question.

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. 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? I was never sure about that in high school. 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. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of "essay," you can see where the conclusion comes from. It's the concluding remarks to the jury.

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. The boring bits can usually be fixed by cutting. But I don't try to fix the unconvincing bits by arguing more cleverly. I need to talk the matter over.


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 The Age of the Essay
Electronic/World Wide Web>Internet Article:  Graham, Paul (September 2004), The Age of the Essay, Retrieved on 2016-05-21
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: education radical caucus