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