The tyranny of the secondary school


Last week, I failed to secure the conviction of the five-paragraph essay.

I start with the excuses.  I haven’t practiced law for over a decade now.  The judge had no concept of the learned treatise exception to the hearsay rule.  The jury found against us by the thinnest of margins: three to two.  The majority on the jury pointed out that my co-counsel and I had not produced sufficient evidence that Ms. Essay had corrupted the writing of vast numbers of grade-school children.  But how many children did we have to bring in as witnesses?  How many lifeless, voiceless expository papers?

We certainly proved Ms. Essay’s corrupting influence. We failed to produce evidence of the problem’s pervasiveness only because the judge wouldn’t permit us to put it on.  You see in the above photo some of the other lawyers comforting me at counsel table after the judge ruled that I could not get my evidence out of my treatises through my experts or through any other means.

But I must take a deep breath here.  I am not writing to vent or blame the ref or even to retry the case against the five-paragraph essay.  I am writing about a similar but larger problem: the tyranny of the expository essay (five-paragraph or otherwise) in secondary education.

We performed the mock trail as part of the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s summer institute.  For the record, Ms. Essay was there in person and proved to be a strong witness on her own behalf.  My opponent and I were chosen as lead counsel because of our legal backgrounds, but both of us agree that our co-counsel out-lawyered us.

Despite the adverse verdict, our witnesses made their point: the five-paragraph essay doesn’t work, and almost none of them is teaching it anymore.  Unfortunately, these witnesses are in the minority among grade-school teachers in that respect today.  The roots of the five-paragraph essay’s pervasiveness go back more than a century to when instruction in the written form of rhetoric was carved up between expository writing and composition (i.e., what was left of written rhetoric).

My first hint that high-school students have little concept of the flexible fundamentals of rhetoric came during my first year of teaching when my entire ninth-grade class failed to recognize a rhetorical question.

“How many sentences are in a paragraph?” I asked.  I was making some point about the flexibility of a paragraph.  I assumed they knew that a paragraph could hold any number of sentences.

“Five,” almost all of them called back in unison.

I have since tried to trace down the source of the “five” answer in vertical meetings among fifth- through ninth-grade language arts and English teachers.  The teachers in those meetings all recognized the answer five, but none of them pointed to her own grade’s instruction as the culprit.  Instead, they pointed to third- and fourth-grade teachers, none of whom, as I may have mentioned, were in attendance.

Part of the problem with the current instruction in writing in most public schools is that structures teachers intend as “scaffolding” become religious dogma for students.  I once heard some pastors joking about one of their number’s strategy of moving a piano one inch every Sunday in order to reposition it across the chancel without upsetting the congregants’ religious sensibilities.  Children are at least as dogmatic as adults, and they often defend the constructs they are taught with a religious and territorial ferocity.

A couple of months after the “five” incident, my department head observed my explanation of the five-paragraph essay’s requirements during my first semester of teaching.  My explanation to the class was perfunctory, and she encouraged me to go back and really teach it: to model a thesis sentence, to have the class write topic sentences together, to practice the requirements in chunks and in groups.  She was right, of course.  But while my students’ writing in general got much closer to meeting my structural requirements after I had taken her advice, their writing was still dull and voiceless.

This summer at the institute, theory is confirming what I have observed in the classroom: teaching one structure for all expository writing does bad things:

  1. It produces “a voice of serious-minded pretentiousness, statements of the obvious, and high-flown diction,” as Tom Romano describes it in his book Crafting Authentic Voice.
  2. It poisons students’ minds against the essay, a wonderful literary form that was first used, and used well, for personal expression, and that offers a great deal of flexibility.  (Have you ever read some of the early essays in essay anthologies, starting with those by Michel de Montaigne?)
  3. Despite the efforts of many teachers, the accretion of years of expository writing leaves students with the impression that the five-paragraph essay is the only way to write an essay.  College composition instructors complain about this mindset.
  4. Instead of teaching structure, teachers requiring five-paragraph essays are preventing students from learning structure.  By giving them a one-size-fits-all structure (the hat is fine; just whittle your head a little), teachers are preventing students from seeking and discovering a structure that fits their content and voice.
  5. Students need an authentic audience as part of the process of reclaiming their voice.  What is the audience of a more formulaic expository essay in high schools?  The audience is a construct, a sort-of dramatic convention, that the teacher and the student believe in to pull the essay assignment off.  The real audience, of course, is the teacher.  In the case of an expository essay about literature, the high-school student assumes that the teacher knows more about the essay’s subject than the teacher, yet she must pretend that her audience knows less.  This complicated, rarely discussed relationship between writer and audience spooks the writer and deadens voice.
  6. What the hell is an objective essay?  Classical rhetoric had no notion of objective writing.  Aren’t we supposed to be teaching students to be critical readers, to discover bias in their reading, and to discern fallacious arguments?  How can we then turn around and teach the gospel of an objective essay and reinforce this belief with the proscription of elements that hint at subjectivity, such as humor and first-person pronouns?
  7. If we want students to take risks with expression and content, we must be prepared for them to take risks with form.  Shouldn’t form serve content, in any event? Isn’t that the problem rhetoric got into before the eighteenth-century Scottish reformers claimed that rhetoric is more than window-dressing for ideas, and before they insisted on reinstating a moral component of rhetoric?

I write with the heat of conversion from my own, forsaken faith in the five-paragraph essay.  But my target is not just the five-paragraph essay or the use of any other off-the-shelf structure in writing instruction.  I believe that colleges and high schools overemphasize literary analysis essays in general.

Like kudzu, expository writing about literature has its place.  Reading reflections help us learn more about the materials we read than if we only read them. Good expository writing can also act as a bridge between a reader and a piece of literature.  But much of the expository writing about literature that is published today (a lot of it we call literary criticism) is crabbed and esoteric.  It is more unapproachable to an average, educated reader than the work it sets out to explain. Michael Hamburger’s point in his book The Truth of Poetry is well taken:

Instead of mediating between the work of art and a non-specialist public, [literary criticism] has become as specialized and as difficult as modern poetry is reputed to be; more difficult often, because poetry has its own way of communicating complex perceptions, and because critics have added their own complexities to those of their texts.

Indeed, Cliff Notes and Spark Notes provide a truer form of expository writing today than does academic journal writing in general, if evidence of public consumption has any credence anymore.

When I was an English major at the University of Virginia in the late ‘70’s, the English department there was considered by at least one national ranking to be the best in the nation, just ahead of Yale’s program.  I took 54 hours of English as an undergraduate – a good number above the hours I needed for my major.  Except for my grade in a single course, my grades were determined by a combination of expository essays written outside of class and expository essays (glorified short answers) written in response to exam prompts.  The one exception was my freshman composition class, which I failed to place out of before entering college. Despite the stigma of remediation that hung around the class, I learned more in that course about how to write than I did in the other 51 hours of English combined.  In composition class, we learned something about eight different modes of rhetoric and practiced writing in them.  We read excerpts from great literature, found patterns and techniques in them, and adopted in our own writing some of the techniques we discovered.  What stuck for each of us became parts of our individual writing voices.

None of this happened in my literature classes, though.  We read and discussed literature, and we wrote essays about it.  We were never instructed on how the kind of writing we did in any of the modes of rhetoric might inform our expository writing.  We were never instructed on how to write at all.  We rarely got meaningful feedback on our writing.  I didn’t know that I could get any help, though I realize now that I could have gotten help had I asked for it.  And my experience was not uncommon at what was arguably the best English program in the country.  (Incidentally, I understand that Virginia has since fallen pretty far from its former, short-lived eminence.)

English departments have emphasized the study of literature at the expense of a more well-rounded study of rhetoric and composition for over a century.  According to the sixth and current edition of The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing, the two professors who held Harvard College’s Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory were the central cause of this change in emphasis, and the nation’s other colleges (and its secondary schools), not surprisingly, followed suit:

In 1806 Harvard College established the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory and became, thereafter, the dominant influence on the development of rhetoric at other American colleges. Edward T. Channing, who held the chair for thirty-two years (1819–1851), continued the Scottish emphasis on belletristic taste and the psychology of persuasion but shifted the emphasis in practice from speaking to writing and increased attention to literary exempla. From the literary models, Channing derived rules for correct grammar, style, and organization, which were taught more and more prescriptively as the century went on.

Francis J. Child, who held the Boylston Professorship after Channing (1851–1876), had studied philology at a German university before taking the chair and came to Harvard determined to turn the study of English from rhetoric to literature. Child bitterly resented the time he had to spend correcting student compositions. He delegated as much of this work as he could to faculty underlings and concentrated on enlarging Harvard’s offerings in literature. In 1876, to keep Child from moving to Johns Hopkins (the first American university to be organized in departments on the German model), Harvard created the first Professorship of English for him, and Child spent the next twenty years developing the English literature curriculum. His successor in the Boylston Professorship, A. S. Hill, continued the rule-bound focus on written composition begun by Channing, but it was now clear that composition was a second-class subject and that rhetoric was hardly mentioned in the English department.

(Emphasis mine).  I resent the time I have to spend correcting student compositions, too.  I’m discovering through this summer’s institute, though, that most of this time is poorly spent.  This year I intend to spend less time writing notes on papers and more time training and coaching writers.

George Steiner sees the same development as the Bedford Bibiography in terms of literary exegeses’ dominance over their subject matter, the “primary” works of literature and art that, he argues, have not flourished in modern times.  His book Real Presences describes academia as the chief culprit in this triumph of “secondary and parasitic discourse” that he dates from around the turn of the twentieth century. The American universities around that time began to import “the pedagogic programmes, the ideals of graduate study and doctoral research, the bibliographic orientation towards the secondary, of the German university system.”  So Steiner concurs with the Bedford Bibliography concerning the cause and the timing of the American academic love affair with secondary (exegetic) writing about literature.

Hamburger measures in monetary terms the poets’ diminished role at the hands of those who explain poetry, and, like the Bedford Bibliography, Hamburger places the time frame in the latter half of the nineteenth century:

Very few, if any, serious poets since Baudelaire have been able to make a living out of their work; but thousands of people, including poets themselves, have made a living by writing or talking about poetry.

Hamburger and Steiner see poets and other artists as the victims of the secondary, while the Bedford Bibliography emphasizes rhetoric’s victimization.  I don’t think any of them would disagree with one another on this score.  Certainly they all agree that the victims have lost ground to a Byzantine culture (and Steiner means “Byzantine” in the historical sense he develops in his book – a stifling, analytically oriented culture) of the secondary.

In passing I’d like to mention the larger, popular notion of nineteenth-century philosophy being acted upon with dire results in the twentieth century.  One of my favorite theses along these lines is that of Professor Harry V. Jaffa in his book A New Birth of Freedom.  Jaffa argues that the brand of historicism and relativism preached by John C. Calhoun may have fallen to Lincoln’s natural rights view of the republic at Appomatox, but it won the subsequent peace.  Here is Jaffa at his most strident:

The historical school, which by the 1850s had largely displaced the natural rights school of the Founding, had also given rise to the romantic movement of the mid-nineteenth century. It too repudiated natural right, because it repudiated ‘rationalism,’ insisting as it did that ‘the heart had its reasons which reason did not know.’ Accordingly, Lincoln’s Socratic reasoning was rejected, because the very idea of justification by reasoning had come to be rejected. History, not reason, decided that some should be masters and others should be slaves. This movement of Western thought, from the natural rights school to the historical school, culminated in the Nazi and the Communist regimes of the twentieth century.

The point of both Jaffa’s and Steiner’s books is the destructive force of relativism (for Jaffa, relativism in political theory; for Steiner, relativism in aesthetics and literary criticism).  I suspect that there is a deeper connection between Calhoun’s philosophy, the Harvard chair’s disdain for grading papers, and the influence of the German university system, but I haven’t proven it yet.  Like Lincoln, who used his first debate with Douglas to test drive his allegation that Douglas, Buchanan, and Taney were involved in a secret conspiracy, I’ll prove it all later.  I’ll try to work in Marx and Nietzsche, too. Meanwhile, back to high school.

Parents want their children prepared for colleges.  Parents and colleges put a lot of pressure on high schools to make students proficient expository writers, and school systems have responded by requiring English teachers to require their students to write a certain number of essays a year.  Most of those essays are expository in nature, and most of the expository essays are literary analyses.  Research papers are also required across some of the high-school curriculum, and these papers amount to more expository writing with references to evidence outside the textbook and outside of any specifically assigned reading.

To meet these demands, many English teachers emphasize a single structure.  (I have also emphasized a single structure.  I hope I’ll stop emphasizing structure on first drafts, and then find ways to teach how structure can complement content on subsequent drafts.)  Many high school English teachers teach thesis sentences, topic sentences, body paragraph structure, lead-ins (not how to write creative ones; just a checklist of what must go in them) and concluding paragraphs.  Well-recognized package structures, like the five-paragraph essay, stick, and they move from grade to grade with students.

It has become my summer’s central theme: how to manage the tricky business of meeting the state’s and the parent’s expectations for expository writing while also producing excited and skilled writers.  The two goals tend to be at odds without vigilant mediation.  Many teachers with more skill and experience than I have don’t know enough about good writing instruction theory to know that excited and skilled writers are even possible.  I don’t know it for sure yet, either, but I’ve now seen evidence of it at the institute this summer.

Many students have thanked their teachers for their help in making their writing come alive for them.  The theory behind these successes is out there, most of it written in the past thirty years and most of it recapturing parts of rhetorical instruction lost since the salubrious Scottish influence of the eighteenth century waned. We have books by Peter Elbow, Tom Romano, Barry Lane, and other instructors of English teachers singing the same chorus against the formalistic instruction of expository essays.  I usually hate sentences that begin with, “All of the literature suggests,” but this is one of the rare cases where all of the relevant, recent literature really does suggest the same thing: the pervasive means of teaching writing in most American high schools is wrong.

[picture]This afternoon I asked Donald Gallehr, a member of the National Writing Project’s board of directors, why American secondary writing education has remained so hidebound after a generation of English teachers has been taught “process” (the shorthand for process writing theory and practice that amounts to a more complete written rhetorical education).  He sees it as a combination of teacher intransigence, the heavy influence of expository-writing- and iiterature-oriented college English departments, and the overemphasis of testing codified in No Child Left Behind.

My theme here amounts to his second reason.  Since the bifurcation of Harvard’s English department into literature and composition, the small part of college English departments responsible for composition instruction has had little influence over how writing is taught at either the college or high-school level. Fortunately, since I was in school, just about every college and university in America has adopted a writer’s program similar to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The National Writing Project seeks to expand the workshop’s reach into American high schools.

[In the photo, my legal team comforts me after our defeat. I updated this post on July 8, 2014.]