Rhetoric, Culture, and the High School Essay: Part 2
In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.
AT FIRST, I was merely satisfied that the process I had developed helped students write better and more easily. But I have come to realize that there's more to it than that.
The process is actually a way of formalizing two things that the best students did anyway, under the standard approach—and melding them into a single, more efficient process.
One difference between the best student writers and the others is that the best ones often take longer to get started on an essay under the standard approach.
The reason for this procrastination is often that they've realized the best way to write a good standard essay is to find a solid thesis before they begin.
They find that solid thesis by going though the same process my alternative method had them do while writing the essay—starting with the question and sorting through the evidence until they come to a clear position that resonates with the facts.
This can take some time when it's done informally and intuitively in the mind. And often even the best students don't consciously know exactly why they don't feel ready to start yet. They use phrases like "I haven't got a handle on it," or "It just hasn't jelled yet."
The second thing that the best student writers often do is to find a way of stating their thesis that doesn't give away everything they're going to say. They find a thesis that is really a teaser, and keeps the reader wanting to know more, until the argument comes together in the conclusion—often with a surprising twist or nuance.
This combination of critical thinking and artful presentation produces, not only good essays, but students who can think and communicate clearly and incisively.
Sadly, though, in the context of the standard approach it's unnecessarily cumbersome—and is only achieved by the very best students.
By far the more important of those two skills is the ability to think a subject through, and to base one's conclusions on the evidence.
This is the critical difference between the two approaches—the difference between learning to write and think from the top down, and learning to write and think from the bottom up.
The standard approach—the top down approach—teaches all but the best students that writing and thinking consists of staking out a position first, and then cherry-picking evidence to support that position.
It teaches them that their conclusions should match their original position, which they picked prior to analyzing the evidence, and it teaches them, often inadvertently, how to ignore or distort evidence that fails to fit their preconceived thesis.
The worst part of that last lesson is that it is often subconscious: they learn to ignore or distort the evidence without even being aware of it. They practice, time and time again, the act of searching for evidence that can be used (or, too often, twisted) to sell a preconceived thesis. Soon this kind of thinking becomes a habit.
They learn to view discourse as a sales art, selling both the reader and themselves on a on an unexamined idea, rather than a way to deepen understanding and to search for truth.
That lesson is dangerous to the student's mind, and it is dangerous to our culture as a whole.
Those high school students are tomorrow's citizens, and the whole culture will benefit or suffer, depending on how well and clearly they can think—on how able they are to hold their opinions in abeyance until they have examined the evidence, and to base their conclusions on that evidence.
It's important, not only that they be able to base their own conclusions on the evidence, but that they have the knack of sensing that something is wrong when they're presented with a jury-rigged argument.
But the worst possible way to prepare to see through cherry-picked evidence and twisted prose is to practice writing it—and to be rewarded (even with a C+) for doing that well.
The student who is taught this way comes to believe that it is the way good argument is done, and is in no position to see through a spurious argument advanced by someone else.
It's important to remember, as we educate the young, that the purpose of all this essay writing is to teach them how to think, and think critically—on paper and in life.