The word essay derives from the title of a 1580 collection of writings by the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne. In his Essays, Montaigne set down his thoughts on whatever subject snared his attention—fear, or idleness, or smells, or friendship. By “essay” he meant a trial, an attempt on a subject, rather than the final word. For centuries, readers have admired his unusual turn of mind, wide-ranging curiosity, and gentle frankness.
Montaigne’s legacy, however, is not always easy to detect in high school English. Most English teachers begin by asking students to produce a peculiar beast known as the “five-paragraph essay.” It consists of an introduction; body paragraph; body paragraph; body paragraph; and conclusion. Granted, logical structure is important. But essays are about thinking, and giving students five boxes doesn’t teach them how to think. Compositions based on the five-paragraph model are often joyless: students’ attention is more on producing the five-paragraph form than on saying something a reader might find interesting.
In fact, in most discussions of the five-paragraph essay, the reader isn’t even considered. Yet enlightening readers is the whole purpose of writing an essay: we write to show readers something they’re not aware of or haven’t noticed, to correct a common misconception, or to shine a spotlight on an important issue. Most high school students have never read any real essays and so have no clue as to why we write them—and the five-paragraph model sheds no light on their purpose. What’s more, the assumption seems to be that students don’t have much to say, so we shouldn’t ask them to be interesting; we should just teach a structure.
Many students emerge from school thinking of the five-paragraph model as the be-all and end-all of the essay form. What’s more, they are unprepared for challenges that, for most of them, lie just around the corner—like the college admissions essay or the scholarship-application essay. Such writing does not resemble the five-paragraph essay.
There are, of course, other approaches to teaching essay-writing. In my own classes, my first aim is that students become fans of the essay form, that they fall in love with great nonfiction prose. For months, they’re on a steady diet of terrific essays, reading and discussing different kinds of essays, and on topics that most students, left to their own devices, might never encounter.
They read, for instance, a piece by Tom Standage called “History Retweets,” in which he proposes that the true inventors of social media were the ancient Romans. They read “My Periodic Table,” the reflections of the terminally ill neurologist Oliver Sacks in the final weeks of his life, in which he reveals that since childhood he has been a chemistry nerd, and that he’s measuring out his remaining days with the atomic numbers of favorite elements. They read “A Neglected Anniversary,” H. L. Mencken’s captivating history of the bathtub in America—only to learn afterward that the whole thing was a goof, a thoroughly convincing hoax, and an opportunity for Mencken to slip in a few digs at his favorite targets (politicians, the medical profession).
My students read Maya Lin’s “Making the Memorial,” in which she describes, first, how as a young architecture student she won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and second, the difficulties involved in getting it built in a way that preserved her original vision. They read “How to Tell If You’re a Jerk,” an essay in which philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel examines the phenomenon he calls “jerkitude.” He points out that it’s difficult to perceive in oneself, and that when we do, we often excuse it. He proposes a tentative definition:
Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of the people around them, treating others as either tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with . . . To be a jerk is to be ignorant in a specific way—ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority.
My students read excerpts from great nonfiction books as well, such as David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, which is like eavesdropping on the era of Mad Men. They also read a chapter from Stuff Matters, by materials scientist Mark Miodownik, in which he uses each chapter to explore a different material—concrete, glass, paper, plastic; my students read the chapter in which he traces the history of steel, along the way giving a primer on the molecular structure of metals, all in compelling and readable prose. In an excerpt from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, his 1937 book on his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War, my students encounter these sentences: “I had been about ten days at the front when it happened. The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting, and I think it is worth describing in detail.” And Orwell delivers on his promise: he describes the moment of the bullet’s impact, the cascade of sensations, the thoughts that raced through his mind; he includes the moment when he learns he’s been shot through the throat and assumes he’s going to die.
By reading and discussing such essays and book excerpts, students learn valuable lessons—that the range of engaging topics is vast, that it includes subjects the student never dreamt he or she would find interesting; that each writer has a distinctive voice and manner, sometimes a surprising grace and charm; that nothing drives a point home like a great example or an apt simile.
Most important, through such essays, students encounter writers in the act of looking at things, thinking hard about things, and reporting what they see. They also confront examples of disarming honesty and of intellectual courage. Such writing makes a great contrast with the vitriol and virtue-signaling dominant in today’s Twitterverse, not to mention the exhibitionism of many Facebook postings.
Reading essays is not unique to my writing classes, of course. In some English classes today, students are given essay anthologies, and some teachers generate excitement about those readings. But I worry that such teachers are the exception, not the rule; that all too often, discussion of those essays devolves into such technical matters as rhetorical devices; that students are then quizzed on their mastery of rhetorical terms like anaphora or zeugma; and that this bloodless focus on technique drains the life out of the experience.
My students, too, discuss writing tools and techniques. But first, they spend hours discussing the essays they read. And when they find a passage exciting or moving or charming, I ask that they figure out how it was done. They then narrow their focus to particular sentences, phrases, expressions—sometimes a particular word—and they proceed to reverse-engineer the writing. As part of that process, they often discover tools and techniques they want to use for their own writing.
In their own essays, moreover, my students explore topics of their own choosing. One student produced an essay titled “The Language of Laughter,” in which she distinguished seven types of laughter—joyful, hysterical, sarcastic, fake, nervous, and so on—and, through examples from her own experience, explored the nature and emotional sources of each type. Another student wrote about fishing for compliments—a practice she found annoying in her friends and appalling in herself. Another wrote about the simple act of holding the door for someone, noticing, for instance, that the occasion is fleeting, that if he has his nose in his smartphone, he’ll miss the moment. He concluded that the real significance of holding the door for someone is that in doing so, you acknowledge that person’s existence, and that such little acts of civility matter.
Another student explored the phenomenon of pareidolia—our tendency to see human faces in inanimate objects like the surface of the moon or the shape of a cliff-face —something she caught herself doing on the highway when staring at the rear of a car just ahead; to her it resembled a smiling face. With a bit of research, she learned that car manufacturers often design an automobile’s front or rear to produce just such a response, and in her essay she cited research on the question of why we humans might be hard-wired to see faces everywhere.
One student explored our relationship with gravity, observing, for instance, that our existence depends on it—that without it, the earth couldn’t retain its atmosphere. In the second half of the essay, he explored the way gravity has crept into our thoughts and language: “Grounded” is something decided or solid. “The gravity of the situation” refers to something serious or important. “Up in the air,” by contrast, means something undecided, and “pie in the sky” means something unrealistic. “Airheaded” might describe someone who’s silly and “up in the clouds” someone not in touch with reality.
I could give more examples, but from this handful one can see, first, that students can indeed find their “voices” in writing, and second, that they often do have things to say. The point is that they need models—a dirty word in much of today’s pedagogy. They need examples of men and women describing what they see, mulling over the implications, articulating real insights. Denying our students such models obliges them to stumble around in the dark.
Having students read deeply in the essay tradition brings additional benefits. The greatest essays exemplify civility in discourse, as well as modesty when confronting the complexity of human affairs. Such essays honor the tradition of Montaigne’s trials—attempts at understanding. Shouldn’t all students know that there’s more to the essay than the five-paragraph exercise—and that essays are more than a classroom artifact?