THE HIGH SCHOOL ESSAY: RITE OF PASSAGE IN A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY
The model of essay suggested below is reflected everywhere in our writing
culture: op-ed pages, essays of all sorts, letters to the editors,
well-written lectures, even conversations that have a satisfying wholeness,
that yield an “experience.” Students enjoy sharing their own discoveries
during class. Students have gravitated to this model as it allows for a
genuine and shared classroom experience where writing reflects the real
tools of critical thought and discovery.
The experiential starting point of this reform of the high school essay is
the recognition that the current five-paragraph essay is not a compelling
model. It is usually an example of “geometric” reasoning and features not a
contribution to an ongoing discussion but a pure formula; as an expression
of the intellect it depends on the belief in absolute univocal certainty. It
is not a compelling model because it doesn’t recognize the mind’s
self-refuting powers: that is, the role of self-criticism in essay.
That said, the exposition essay is a formal, public act, to be distinguished
from the personal essay. Yet the two forms have an “inner form” in common.
This “inner form” is the alternate to the five-paragraph essay. (We use the
term “inner form” to separate it from the “outer form” of grammar, syntax,
stylistics, and so on.)
As we teach inner form, the form of essay is governed by a set of premises
or rules for development. But first, the essay is grounded in the
conversation (dialogue) going on in public (in the class) about what
matters. This is important because the high school essay is a portal to
civic-mindedness and participation in the wider culture of the day. Perhaps
more than any other skill, the essay is our culture’s rite of passage.
The composition of an essay starts in the classroom and continues in the
mind and study of the student. Once the writer has chosen a problem or topic
from the current conversation going on in the classroom, she has to choose a
thesis. The thesis, like the problem (or topic), is an idea entertained by
participants in the conversation; it should not become an burden to the
student. Any number of interesting ideas about a given text (problem) have
been discussed in class, and the student has only to choose one to get the
essay off the ground. The teachers note that releasing the pressure from
this part of the essay makes a big difference to the students in getting
into the assignment and really writing.
What matters most in the essay is the performance/execution paragraph by
paragraph of the rules of critical thinking, where “rules” means something
specific to the essay form itself (as opposed to grammatical rules, for
example). For many years textbooks always contained chapters on “types of
paragraphs”: these included, for example, definition, classification,
analysis, process, cause and effect, anecdote, and so on. These types of
paragraphs are the givens of the middle: the writer of the essay assumes the
reader knows how to use these forms of reason and respects their application
to any problem worth discussing. These modes of thinking are crucial to
critical thinking. As writers of essays, we believe, along with our readers,
that submitting our ideas to these types of reason is a small price to pay
for mutual understanding and the life of the common good.
So, to draw this together, once the student has shown a grasp of the reading
material and discussion by choosing a problem and a thesis (in the early
going it is OK for the teacher to provide these), the student must then
perform the rules of critical thinking by creating paragraphs that test the
As a comp teacher, I have discovered that focusing on the middle – on the
performance of these types of reasoning – requires the student to practice
them over and over. The teacher becomes a coach: encouraging, disciplining
where needed, praising where it’s justified. Students learn these forms of
criticism by practicing them in isolation as well as in the writing of
essays. (This can be compared to practicing different moves that together
make up the skill set that allows you to play, say, tennis.) Students tend
to trust coaches because the ethos of sports is “good sportsmanship” and
winning. If you listen to coach, she will help you be a winner. English
teachers can call on this “hidden premise” of the ethos to succeed in the
demanding task of teaching the essay.
From the point of view of the essay, what happens in the testing is that the
thesis becomes “qualified.” In the process, the paragraphs expose the weaknesses of the thesis but also isolate a qualified version of the thesis. The aspects of the thesis that survive the tests performed by the paragraphs survive in a strengthened form which gradually brings about a change of mind for the writer/reader. Students often verify the positive outcome of the process by noting how writing the essay helped them clarify their thoughts. In this sense, expository prose answers the perennial call of philosophy, “know thyself,” and it does so in a way that benefits others.
In short, by the end of the essay, a new point of view on the old problem should have been gained. (In the old 5-paragraph model, it is tempting to simply repeat the thesis, since nothing much has happened to it – other than
“illustration” – in the process of the essay.) Such a transformation of the
old problem will come as a surprise to the writer/reader. This “turn” in the
essay is found in many literary forms; and indeed, many literary forms apply
“inner form” to the ongoing questions engaging our public life.
One of the exciting things about the research done by several English Teachers at Exeter High School is how inner form can provide the organizational format for class room discussions as well as the essays students write. This creates a seamlessness in the experience that is highly efficient. The inner form is indeed the form of “experience” in the sense given in the exclamation: “Now that was an experience!” Reading — and writing — an essay can be an emotionally powerful experience.
Knowing what real experience is – that it is not irrational, sentimental, or
rigidly ideological – is one of the chief indirect outputs of the new
teaching on essay. Changing the default intuitive feeling for what constitutes “an experience” has a profound effect on the person. As the essay does its work on character, reason — the types of analysis performed in the middle — becomes essential to the rich sense of what constitutes experience.
The Exeter High teachers are eagerly pursuing the concept of “inner form” as suited to across-the-curriculum applications. At Exeter High School, the Science department is especially interested in learning the new model. This is a crucial point in its favor: it helps the conversation between “the two