Age of the Essay: A Response

22 Feb

Paul Graham has good intentions.  He’s a computer guy—Cornell and Harvard educated, no less—who doesn’t understand why high school English teachers inflict a formulaic  structure (Intro + Support + Conclusion = Essay) on their students.  A fine question, except that his execution might be answer enough: the ambling, unfocused writing that ponders and pontificates without ever clearly articulating one’s point.  He’s convinced that such a simplistic structure is bad, without considering the potential pedagogical necessity (we teach kids this lame formula because its the framework of any good essay and don’t want new writers wandering off in just any direction).  Graham’s proud outsider status (he’s an ivy-league computer science guy! who also paints!) is his Achilles heel; disdainful of the literary nonsense indulged in by English departments, he bucks English class convention, and thus, well crafted writing and argumentation, which he often confuses, or more precisely, never distinguishes clearly from the beginning.

For Graham, high school essays are “about symbolism in Dickens.”  Your teachers insist that you take a position and defend it; for Graham, a real essay “doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question.  In a real essay, you don’t take a postion and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and open it and in to see what’s inside.”  So essays aren’t about making arguments, they’re about asking questions…and leaving doors open and walking through those doors?  But wait, Graham also tells us an essay should “be convincing, certainly, but it should be convincing because you got the right answers, not because you did a good job of arguing.”  Suddenly, Graham has jumped to a philosophical argument—essay as epistemology:

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. It’s not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can’t change the question.

So an essay should change the question if necessary. The idea that asking a question and then “discovering” the answer, and making an argument then defending it, is a distinction without a difference seems to escape Graham. But shortly thereafter, our search for the essay-wrought truth is all for naught: 

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. An essay is something else.

Ha Ha!  Joke’s on you!  The whole essay up to this point has been a semantic argument!  High school essay structure might be a valid format, but its not an essay per se!  At this point, you’d think the whole reason for writing the essay would collapse.  But that’s only because you paid attention in English class.  Finally, Graham is going to advocate a different sort of essay.  Not surprisingly, it looks a lot like his own:

An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn’t already know. But what you tell him doesn’t matter, so long as it’s interesting. I’m sometimes accused of meandering. In defend-a-position writing that would be a flaw. There you’re not concerned with truth. You already know where you’re going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But that’s not what you’re trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.

So what would a real essay look like?  It would meander and ask questions (what sort of question is unimportant, so long as it is interesting), perhaps doubling back and then coming to a conclusion (but not an “English class” conclusion).  Got all that?  At this point, Graham has abandoned what was, ostensibly, the original aim of his essay: a critique of teaching literature and writing together.  Why shouldn’t we teach literature and writing together?  One can’t really say; Graham only gave us a brief and improbable syllogism cum history lesson: 

…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

This tells us why we teach them together, not why they shouldn’t be taught together.  The reader is left with the impression that the sort of study done by English professors today has no real value, or at least no value for the craft of writing.  This makes sense to Graham, who sees himself as the leader of a common sense insurrection, freeing his computer science and engineering friends from English Department tyranny:

This helps counteract the rule that gets beaten into our heads as children: that things are the way they are because that is how things have to be. For example, everyone I’ve talked to while writing this essay felt the same about English classes—that the whole process seemed pointless. But none of us had the balls at the time to hypothesize that it was, in fact, all a mistake. We all thought there was just something we weren’t getting.

Damn! If only I had the balls to point out to my English professor that he kept making arguments and supporting them with textual citations, instead of asking questions and then answering them, which is definitely not the same thing (one is much more verbose). But remember, Graham stopped arguing about English class essays many paragraphs ago in order to point out that what we’re writing isn’t the same as the original definition of essays.  So what we write in English classes is technically valid, its just not the best way at getting at the truth.  At no time does Graham come out and say this.  This would sound suspiciously like a thesis statement (or concise writing).  Half the fun is meandering!

In the end, Graham is a victim of his own bad English education and misconceptions about the Humanities.  He never had an English teacher who explained that we teach literature to teach analytcial and critical writing skills; a poem or a novel has definite features that have to be teased out or examined closely in order to find and understand.  That takes analysis. You also have to be able to support your findings (critical thinking and clear argumentation).  As for truth, well, that’s a big problem for Graham, because literature doesn’t always contain the sort of truths that are easy to talk about.  That’s why they’re great for teaching writing: in the real world, not all truths are apparent, and not all facts lead to the same conclusion (unlike say, math, or, computer science).  We want students to be able to look at and interpret the world—and defend that interpretation.  History isn’t just “all the data we have so far,” as Graham would have it, because that data has to be interpreted and turned into a story.  Graham’s issue isn’t with essays, its with the way English departments, and the Humanities as a whole, reckon with the truth.  But that’s another essay altogether.


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