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Sunday, 19 February 2006
The art of the essay is dying

In an earlier post I expressed concern about "over-googling" making one's brain lazy. In particular, children may be cutting and pasting information from the internet without thinking about it.

In The Telegraph, Dr Andrew Cunningham, who has taught at two very good schools, laments the "death of the essay":

But don't just blame our text-generation teenagers for not caring about the essay. Blame the exam boards, with their insatiable thirst for bullet points and bite-sized information. Their preoccupation with "modules", coursework and "assessment objectives" mitigates against flair, originality and individuality - the very essence of the successful essay.

As coursework now accounts for at least 20 per cent of all GCSEs and A- levels, even the slackest pupils realise they need to present essays neatly. Thus, all coursework essays are typed up. And those scripts reflect the cut-and-pasted nature of so much of the content: 25 identical essays on Romeo and Juliet, peppered with the same bullet points dictated in class to "meet the syllabus requirements".

Now, at the back of every teacher's mind, is a new worry: whether that essay has been downloaded from the internet. The spread of companies offering pre-written essays signals to pupils that essays aren't important: they're another service which, like anything else, can be bought. And what are exam boards doing about them? Very little.

Thus the art of essay-writing has become a mechanical process. The "student" will be worrying whether he has managed to tick off enough boxes in the "assessment criteria grid" that the teacher distributed.

If any parent should glance at the marked essay in their child's folder, instead of helpful comments tailored to the child's needs they will see the teacher covering himself by showing the examiners he too knows the assessment objectives. Comments like: "Jolly good - but how about mentioning Romeo and Juliet's nasty parents?" have given way to: "AO3 - yes"; "No AO5 (ii) here"; "What about some AO4?"

George Orwell's advice on writing clearly, in the 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, is of more use than most syllabuses. If parents want to help to improve their child's style and content, they should show them Orwell's rules. Perhaps someone should show the exam boards.

When I studied history at school we had to write essays all the time. My recollection of any factual content imparted in those history lessons is "numb and vague", and confined to stock phrases such as "peace with honour" and "under the British flag", or "Tory Acts, Factory Acts, Satisfactory Acts and Unsatisfactory Acts". Actually, that last one was from Sellar and Yeatman's "1066 And All That", but you get the picture. However, writing all those essays did teach one to structure an argument, and to follow one. Is this a dying art? It is hard to learn this skill later in life, while surfing the internet is something that can be picked up at any age.

Craig Brown has written a sequel to Sellar and Yeatman's classic, called "1966 And All That". It is in the spirit of the original, although not as good. Like the original, it contains those spoof test papers - "Why are you so numb and vague about Arbella Stuart?", "What price glory?", "Who was in whose what, and how many miles awhat?". Many of these are updated for the new style dumbed down GCSE paper, in which candidates are spared the pain of facts or analysis and asked to empathise:

Imagine you are Adolph Hitler. It is the morning of 30 April 1945. How are you feeling? Unburden yourself in no more than 50 words. Ask yourself: where did it all go wrong? On balance, might you have better career prospects if you had stuck to being a painter?

Posted on 02/19/2006 6:07 AM by Mary Jackson
19 Feb 2006
Send an emailJason Pappas
Alas, the grass always seems greener on the other side of the pond. Having suffered a public school education in the NYC schools of the 1950s and 60s, the state of affairs in England seems behind the times?if degeneration is a sign of the times. Our school system of the 1950s was heavily influenced by John Dewey?s ?progressive? ideas through Columbia?s Teachers? College. I was taught to read by looking at words without looking at the letters! It wasn?t the 3rd grade when a substitute teacher told us about the sounds of letters, did we realize there was a method to building words. It seemed like cheating, since we were told that only words as a whole have significance. Individual letters, those rugged individual lone-wolves, were suspect?deviously misleading one in misspelling the most common of words. As a consequence, it has taken decades to enjoy the medium of the written word as something more than an imperfect means to the transcendental thought. Some day I may even love poetry as much as I love music! Concerning the essay on essay, I took Orwell?s interest in pamphleteering and decided that the Internet can be a revolutionary tool for a revival of the essay! Ah, I?ll never get the hang of this conservative disposition even if I share the goals and aims.

19 Feb 2006
Esmerelda Weatherwax
My daughter's favourite subject at school is "creative writing". She loves making up stories (not quite the same as essay writing I admit) and using new words, alliteration, rhyme. I mentioned this love to her new teacher last term. "Yes," she said, "I must speak to her about that. She wastes too much time thinking of interesting words to use, when all the SATs require her to do is demonstrate correct use of punctuation. if she doesn't get a move on she will lose marks" I was quite upset. She gets plenty of encouragement at home, and plenty of inspiration in the form of books to read so I doubt if it will be stifled out of her but what of the children without supportive parents? Cue your blog last week about the demise of the Grammar schools, without which my Mother would have put me in Marks and Sparks, that bastion for the bright working class girl who didn't have the stamina for nursing. I looked up a website of a Scottish EA where a writer who used to be a teacher set down his experiences encouraging teachers to teach "creative writing" Excuses like, "we did that last year" or "I don't know how". Celebrate diversity? Conformity rules!

19 Feb 2006
Shinoliite / Marisol Seibold
It's fascinating to find out that many of the ills that plague the US educational system are also turning up in the UK. Mary, would you know offhand if the UK's standing in international test scores have experienced the same downward trend that the States' have?

The tide may be turning at last, but it'll take a while for any turnaround to gain momentum, as one sincerely hopes it will. The Almighty Standardized Tests (peace be upon them), such as the SAT (for high school students) and the GRE (for prospective grad students) have begun including an essay portion in recent years. So far gone is the situation in the US, that the standardized tests may be our salvation, rather than further deteriorating the art.

The modular/bullet-point style of instruction may be fine for the portions of tests where one has to fill in bubbles with a #2 pencil, but the essay really completes the picture, so to speak, of any given student. That occurs by having them demonstrate an actual skill, which requires them to show they've assimilated the finer points of grammar, critical thinking, and a logical organization of ideas, especially when they don't know what they may be called upon to write about.

In addition to offering a more complete picture of a prospective student in an increasingly competitive world of admissions and scholarships, it also serves as a great diagnostic tool of what a sorry state college-bound students' writing skills are in (to say nothing of those not aspiring to higher ed).

It's been an increasing complaint of professors over the years: The kids can't write these days. On the other hand, it's telling that the "honors" curricula at US universities focus heavily on two things: Writing, and the canon of great books. That's still what separates one from the rest of the pack, political correctness and self-esteem aside.

Those two factors-- standardized tests and the example of honors programs-- spell some measure of hope for the essay in US schools. Students will regain a command of writing, "if I have to, I guess," even if it's not fun, or if they can't immediately appreciate its importance.

And therein lies one of the less politically correct lessons that gets lost in the desire not to cause undue stress to our students (thereby conditioning them to feel more stress about less work): It's amazing what you can accomplish when you just plain have to-- even learning how to write an essay.