Old People Essays

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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.

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. 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.

The sort of writing that attempts to persuade may be a valid (or at least inevitable) form, but it's historically inaccurate to call it an essay. Trying To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. One can't have quite as little foresight as a river.

To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called "essais." He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. I always know generally what I want to write about.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.September 2004Remember the essays you had to write in high school?Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion.But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones.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. Dartmouth, the University of Vermont, Amherst, and University College, London taught English literature in the 1820s.This idea (along with the Ph D, the department, and indeed the whole concept of the modern university) was imported from Germany in the late 19th century. 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.Beginning at Johns Hopkins in 1876, the new model spread rapidly. 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.But don't change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original. I'd much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. When friends came back from faraway places, it wasn't just out of politeness that I asked what they saw. And I found the best way to get information out of them was to ask what surprised them.How was the place different from what they expected? You can ask it of the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn't even know they were recording.

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