Home > Uncategorized > School essays and the other kind

School essays and the other kind

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’m reading early drafts of short essays written for an English class. They are fine and will grow in revision, so I’m not worried. But they bring to mind the contrast between school essays and the great tradition of the essay as a literary form.

School essays show a teacher that a student was paying attention lately in class and often enough over the years to cough up a credible account of something. The credibility comes from obeying the formal school rules and proving you know the basics about the assigned topic. Nothing new is required. No fresh contact with the world of experience, no new ripples in the ocean of ideas. The product is fabricated in familiar ways out of pre-approved materials. If you succeed, you have gone a step further in earning your journeyman card in whatever trade you will someday pursue.

Essays in the literary tradition invent their own organization on a case-by-case basis. They count as evidence whatever the writer can persuade us counts as evidence. They generally take a closer look at an experience we tend to take for granted, and they see something new there that has implications in the ocean of ideas. They don’t have the last word about anything, though, because they aren’t pulling rank. They do persuade, however, because their sentences cut through common sense, cliché, and preconception to something fresh. It’s almost impossible to write this kind of essay without giving a reader a sense of who you are and how you think and feel, and so these essays are full of personality when they are done, as a side effect of doing the real work of the essay.

The two kinds of essays are profoundly different from each other. Nobody expects a school essay to be read again after the teacher has graded it. A literary essay, however, can remain alive for centuries.

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