Rhetoric, Culture, and the High School Essay: Part 1
Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.
I'VE SPENT A LARGE part of my professional life teaching high school and college students—and the occasional teacher—about the art of essay writing.
I've only recently realized that the method I invented, teaching high school English all those years ago, has repercussions that extended far beyond the classroom.
I'm increasingly convinced, in fact, that the standard approach to teaching essay writing is dangerous—to the student's mind, and, ultimately to our culture.
I know that's a large claim, but let me explain.
During my first few years as an English teacher, I approached essays the same way my own high school teachers had approached them—and the way that most writing teachers still do.
The process, oversimplified, looks like this:
- Decide on your thesis, because that is the backbone of your essay.
- Write an introductory paragraph that leads nicely into your thesis.
- Choose two, or, preferably, three different ways to support your thesis.
- Find concrete evidence to back up each of those three supporting paragraphs.
- Add a concluding paragraph, which sums up the evidence, and restates your thesis, reinforcing your point.
I was quite happy with this system at first. But as the years went by I became frustrated. I began to notice that students often had great difficulty coming up with a decent thesis statement. I also noticed that they often had trouble supporting their thesis, once they had picked it.
All too often they would write themselves into a corner, finding evidence and arguments that actually contradicted their original thesis. When the essay was written in class, or as part of an exam, this could be fatal since they had no time to go back and rewrite it.
So, I finally did what I probably should have done from the first. I asked myself how I went about writing an essay, and I discovered that I didn't use the traditional model at all.
I realized that I had gone straight through college, getting quite respectable grades—often on the basis of my writing—while rarely beginning with a thesis statement at all.
What I used instead was a thesis question—often the very question the teacher had asked.
This led to a completely different process, though, in some ways it paralleled the standard approach. Oversimplified, it looks like this:
- Decide on the general area of the question you want to use as the backbone of your essay.
- Spend your first paragraph defining and clarifying the main question, and
- Breaking it down into two to five smaller questions (three is ideal, but form follows function here).
- Take up each of the smaller questions in turn, breaking them down and repeating the process where necessary.
- When all the smaller questions have been answered, join those answers together to answer the thesis question.
I found that when I taught my students this method they wrote better essays, for several reasons.
First, they didn't have to take a position until they had examined all the evidence, in the process of writing the essay. They stopped writing themselves into corners, and they didn't waste a lot of time trying to come up with a thesis before they had thoroughly examined the issues.
Second, the essays were just more interesting. The structure was basically the structure of a good mystery novel, and it had the same narrative pull. The reader was introduced to a question, and followed the trail of evidence along with the writer to the conclusion.
Third, the conclusion was often surprising and interesting. Most thesis statements created by most students under the standard approach were, well, boring. But students who were writing their way through the evidence often came up with surprising answers to the questions they had posed—answers that were more nuanced, and more insightful, because they grew naturally out of the evidence.
Students found these essays easier to write, because they didn't have to know, in advance, where they were going. Writing an essay became an adventure, a process of inquiry, instead of just a performance—it became a way of thinking on paper.
When my students returned from college to visit, they told me that the essay form I had taught them not only made college writing easier, but almost always earned them top grades—especially when answering essay questions.
I was quite happy with these results at the time, since my only goal was to teach writing skills. But I've recently realized that the contrast between those two approaches to high school essays has much deeper implications for our culture as a whole.
More about that next time.