Rhetoric, Culture, and the High School Essay: Part 3
Good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue.
I'VE COME TO THE CONCLUSION that the standard, top down, approach to teaching the high school essay is a mistake—and even dangerous—for all of the reasons I outlined in part 2 of this series.
But what about the alternative—the bottom up approach? What does it teach students about writing and thinking?
To begin with, it teaches them that well-formed questions are at least as important as answers—and are the starting point for any answer worth having. It teaches them to think through their criteria before evaluating the evidence—or even deciding which evidence to evaluate.
Students begin the bottom-up approach by defining a question (if the teacher hasn't provided a question). They learn the importance of being clear about what is being asked, and why.
They then proceed to divide the question into smaller questions—not just any smaller questions, but questions that go to the heart of the big question in the essay, and begin to provide the criteria for a reliable answer.
This requires that they use their intelligence, and it requires that the teacher does as well. The teacher who attempts this method must follow the student's train of thought when grading an essay, and point out gaps in the reasoning, mistakes in interpreting evidence, or mistakes in applying evidence to the various questions.
This requires more thoughtfulness on the teacher's part, in some ways, than the standard approach. But it's easier in other ways.
The teacher can set clear criteria for each step of the process, and can make a much clearer connection for the student between the final grade and the marks on the essay.
The important point, though, is that the hidden sub-structure of the standard approach (the substructure that is present only in the very best essays) becomes explicit. This is good writing, because it is better communication, and more interesting.
It's good training, because students have to actually think on paper, and make clear, for themselves and the teacher, the process by which they come to their conclusions.
And, because the connections are explicit in the essay, it's usually a lot easier for the teacher to follow the structure.
The average students often surprise themselves, because, for the first time, they understand the thought process that goes into good writing and thinking.
The bottom up approach teaches students that conclusions should be drawn from the evidence, and not the other way around. It teaches them to withhold judgment until they have first thought the question through and then examined the evidence.
They learn that thinking is full of surprises, that the process of following a question from analysis to evidence to conclusion can give them new and interesting insights—quite different from the ones they had at the beginning.
They learn that they are capable of coming to complex views of their own that are nuanced and precise—and that these views are not necessarily those of their teachers.
What is more, they learn to value nuanced and precise answers over simplistic slogans. They come to understand whether a position merely sounds good, or is rooted in reality.
They learn that the purpose of discourse is to deepen understanding, and learn to dislike arguments that distort the evidence, evade the question, or muddy the waters.
And, because they can think a question through clearly themselves, they are able to detect distortions and evasions from others.