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The Futility of Essays

To meet the basic requirements for writing an English Literature essay in a school context, there is surprisingly little really useful guidance. Most students come to the task without any idea of what to do, but approach it as simply something that the school says ‘must be done’. And the truth is that many teachers come to it with the same attitude.

The idea of writing an essay about a poem, play or novel while sitting in a classroom full of one’s peers, with the aim of submitting it for assessment, and depending upon the result as a measure of how one is understanding a subject as a whole, is rather odd when you think about it. When this assessment is further reduced to a letter or a number on a page signifying a degree of comprehension and skill, by which the education system determines whether or not one fits into a particular category of ability, makes the whole thing even odder.

There are at least three different problems with this: the first is that the student has no idea what an 'essay' actually is. Defined in a dictionary as ‘a short piece of writing on a particular subject’ or ‘an attempt or effort’, the word originated in the late 15th century as a verb meaning ‘to test the quality of’, from the Old French essayer, based on the late Latin word exagium ‘weighing’. The noun is from the Old French essai ‘trial’.

A ‘weighing up’, a ‘trial’, an ‘attempt’ - in the shape of ‘a short piece of writing on a particular subject’. None of that is normally explained to any teenager attempting to put one together - everything is based on an assumption that this is ‘the way to do things’ when studying literature. Alternatives could be devised: students could be asked to write a commentary on a poem or novel, or to give a presentation about it, or even to copy its methods in an effort to show what the poet or author is trying to do. Sometimes, as exercises, these things are done in classrooms in one way or another - but everything then boils back down to the ‘essay’.

The second problem is that students are not usually given much, if any, guidance about how to approach the task, even once it has been introduced as a ‘must do’. Various requirements are thrown at them: their writing must be ‘clear’, their argument ‘logical’, their use of quotes ‘balanced’, their points ‘supported by evidence from the text’. But all of these things are cast into a purposeless void: why is anyone commanded to construct such a thing? Experience suggests that most students have a highly questionable grasp of what some texts are even about in the first place, quite a long way prior to being asked to respond to them in this way.

One analogy is that of someone learning to drive. Before being familiarised with what a car can do or what it is for, and being given only a rudimentary description of the dashboard and controls, what if a learner driver was immediately thrust into the driving seat, given a key, and told that, based on how they performed in the next thirty minutes, they would pass or fail a test upon which their future depended?

Surely one should start with a basic description of and introduction to the vehicle? Followed by an explanation of what cars were used for, which must certainly include some inspirational material about where one could travel in one and what horizons would open up if one was able to drive one? One would then permit the hopefully-excited student to familiarise himself or herself with the machine, studying the controls and their functions in some detail before practising with them in a safe, non-judgemental context. Only when a student demonstrated both an ability and a willingness to proceed would one test skills. And the test would be to determine whether or not the driver was safe to let loose, surely?

The third problem is that of course the education system isn’t either a system, as such, or very educational. The presentation of the subject is such that an individual either ‘gets’ it or doesn’t, in a narrow time band. Instead of being educated, the vast majority of students are simply being culled. Just as most learner drivers would crash their car into a ditch on their initial attempts to drive, so many students turn in work that displays only a basic level of understanding or ability. They are then ‘graded’ accordingly and on the basis of that grade, futures open and close.

Among several tragedies arising from this is that children and teenagers are denied the joys of literature: poems, plays and novels become closed books to them, literally. The ‘driver’ is denied access to the landscape around him or her; the cultural topography remains a complete mystery. Lives are confined; spirits are held down; expression is limited and channelled. All of this could change, were the subject to be introduced in a different way.

Let it begin by defining the words; let it proceed by giving a purpose to the task. Instead of being tested almost immediately, let the student be orientated to the text in front of him or her, understanding it with as much clarity as possible. Then let a goal be framed: how could one use one’s command of the language and the techniques of writing to convey to another the poet’s or the playwright’s or the novelist’s work in words other than those used by the poet, the playwright or the novelist? And why would one wish to do so anyway?

Teenagers are not stupid. Whether they voice the question or not, they ask it subjectively: 'Who would really want to know what I believe this poem or play or novel is about?' 'What is the point of me struggling to explain something or to communicate about it, except as a dry, academic exercise for the purposes of assessment only?' And they surely have a case: thousands of ‘essays’ are handed in to teachers across the country every year simply as conventional tools for assessing those students’ ability to apply a largely rote set of criteria under strict conditions. They are then shredded or filed or otherwise disposed of without a thought. What was the point?

To stretch our analogy even further, we give maps briefly to learning drivers, fail to explain what they mean or the possibilities inherent in them, snatch them away and give a swift and rudimentary introduction to the basic functions of a motor vehicle, and then test those drivers soon afterwards on their ability to manipulate the vehicle, not even bothering to question whether or not they had a use for the vehicle or wanted to go anywhere.

Imagine what would happen if drivers glimpsed arriving at destinations with all their potential; conceive for a moment the idea that they then eagerly familiarised themselves with cars so that they could master them for a purpose; ponder on the consequences of driving tests being done after training the driver to competence. A society of fully-trained and inspired drivers, equipped with skills to take them anywhere - that would be a thing to see.

For much more about literature and writing, visit Clarendon House Publications here.

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