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September Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.
So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: Or at least, how I write one. Mods The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature.
Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.
With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens?
Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. How did things get this way? To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years. AroundEurope at last began to catch its breath after centuries of chaos, and once they had the luxury of curiosity they rediscovered what we call "the classics.
These earlier civilizations were so much more sophisticated that for the next several centuries the main work of European scholars, in almost every field, was to assimilate what they knew. During this period the study of ancient texts acquired great prestige.
It seemed the essence of what scholars did. As European scholarship gained momentum it became less and less important; by someone who wanted to learn about science could find better teachers than Aristotle in his own era.
In the 19th century the study of ancient texts was still the backbone of the curriculum. The time was then ripe for the question: The answer, of course, is that the original raison d'etre of classical scholarship was a kind of intellectual archaeology that does not need to be done in the case of contemporary authors.
But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer. The archaeological work being mostly done, it implied that those studying the classics were, if not wasting their time, at least working on problems of minor importance. And so began the study of modern literature.
There was a good deal of resistance at first. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones. But Harvard didn't have a professor of English literature untiland Oxford not till Oxford had a chair of Chinese before it had one of English.
This idea along with the PhD, the department, and indeed the whole concept of the modern university was imported from Germany in the late 19th century.
Beginning at Johns Hopkins inthe new model spread rapidly. Writing was one of the casualties. Colleges had long taught English composition. But how do you do research on composition?
The professors who taught math could be required to do original math, the professors who taught history could be required to write scholarly articles about history, but what about the professors who taught rhetoric or composition?
What should they do research on? The closest thing seemed to be English literature. This had two drawbacks: High schools imitate universities.
The seeds of our miserable high school experiences were sown inwhen the National Education Association "formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course.
It's no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we're now three steps removed from real work: No Defense The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn't take a position and then defend it.
That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins. It's often mistakenly believed that medieval universities were mostly seminaries. In fact they were more law schools.KEY POINTS: The history of the HIV and AIDS epidemic began in illness, fear and death as the world faced a new and unknown virus.
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