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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. 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.But Harvard didn't have a professor of English literature until 1876, and Oxford not till 1885. And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors.
September 2004Remember the essays you had to write in high school?
Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion.
With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. 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.
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? 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. But when you understand the origins of this sort of "essay," you can see where the conclusion comes from. 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. But I don't try to fix the unconvincing bits by arguing more cleverly. At the very least I must have explained something badly.
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.
The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure. So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Mods 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.