Monthly Archives: February 2014

Whither the College Essay?


Rebecca Schuman, the education columnist at Slate, recently wrote a piece advocating against humanities professors assigning essays in intro level courses. Grading essays is too subjective; essays enable BS-ing; essays do not reflect genuine learning of the subject matter; students hate writing them; professors hate grading them–these are some of her points. Schuman argues that tight, specific, and scary (!) written and oral exams should replace essay writing in required humanities courses.

Michael D. Hattem over at the Junto has an interesting response to Schuman. I love Hattem’s statement: “I think learning  to write better is one of the primary facets of a college degree in the Humanities.” He’s exactly right.

We’re talking about the humanities. I know this is going to sound trite and simplistic–but the study of the humanities is, at least in part, the study of what it means to be a human being. It is also an act of participation with other human beings who have contributed to the flourishing of the species in great and small ways.

To jettison writing in humanities courses is unthinkable. To do so defeats one of the purposes of the humanities–to improve oneself, to aspire, to make a contribution to the lives of others, a contribution that is bigger than oneself. Writing is an avenue for contributing to human flourishing.

A biology major may not be a gifted writer. But a biology major is still a human being, right? She went into the study of biology, presumably, to make a contribution to the greater good of humanity and the world. Our biology major, most likely, wants her life to count for something greater than herself. These are safe assumptions because the biology major is not a computer, or even an android with a positronic brain (whatever the heck that is).

As a human being with aspirations to improve herself, humanity, and the world, a STEM major needs to learn how to write well–to write persuasively, eloquently, logically, and clearly. All students should at least be given the tools and the opportunities to write well. Why should humanities scholars write off STEM majors, or anyone for that matter, as not needing or wanting to be better writers?

The problems with essay writing that Schuman points out are concerning. They do matter. But none of them demonstrate a necessary flaw in the practice of requiring essays. They reflect accidental characteristics, not essential ones, as one great writer, Aristotle, might say.

It’s no secret that STEM disciplines are getting all the love and the humanities disciplines are getting socked in the eye. I think that those of us who teach in the humanities must find ways to demonstrate the value and relevance of our fields to those outside of them.

Writing is a craft. It is a craft built on both reason and beauty. Through writing, we simultaneously exhibit the clenched fist of logic and the open hand of persuasion, as the Greek Zeno said. The written word outlasts the spoken word, and reaches more people. Thus, there is no limit to the potential size of a writer’s audience. Writing well alters perceptions, exposes frauds, holds out the truth, lifts the spirit, and sometimes makes the difference between whether someone lives or dies. Where would humanity be without the written word?

If students hate writing, then it is the teacher’s job to show them why they are wrong to hate it. It is the teacher’s job to assign topics that require the students to assimilate and assess the content of the course. It is the teacher’s job to spot BS and bring punishment, swift and sure, to the guilty student. It is the teacher’s job to model good writing for the student by being a writer himself. It is the teacher’s job to write well and teach well. If students leave a class having written a required essay and saw absolutely no value in the exercise, then the teacher has failed to teach well.

Engineering majors need to learn how to write. So do English majors. Removing the requirement to write in humanities courses would be a terrible mistake. It would be a betrayal of teaching what it means to be an authentic human being. And that defeats the purpose of the humanities.


“We Seem to Have the Upper Hand”


The First World War is fascinating to me. I’ve mentioned before here on the blog that if I had another 30 years or so to add to my life, I’d go back to school and get another PhD, this time to focus on the US Marines’ action at Belleau Wood in 1918.

Twenty fourteen marks one hundred years since the start of hostilities. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist. By August 4, Europe was at war. Four years later, 22 million men became casualties–52 percent of the total percentage of every man who put on a uniform to fight for his country.

The British Empire sustained over 3 million casualties in the war. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, sixty thousand men were killed. Sixty thousand in one day! That’s as many Americans that were killed in the Vietnam War from 1959-1975. It was the worst day of many bad days in the history of the British army.

The University of Manchester is holding an exhibit of a collection of letters from soldiers writing to their former professor, Thomas Frederick Tout, from the front. Most of the men who wrote to their old mentor were killed in action. Reading these letters and others like them brings home a small sense of the reality of an appalling war.

If you want to read a good history of World War I that is based on the perspective of the ordinary soldier at the front, pick up a copy of Lyn Macdonald’s To the Last Man: Spring 1918. You can also check out Macdonald’s oral history of World War I, entitled 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War. Both books will no doubt stick with you for a long time.

Need Help Establishing Your Web Presence?


If so, you should go over to Liz Covart’s website. Liz is an early American historian who possesses a precious asset–the ability as a scholar to bring history to public audiences in an engaging way. She also is a consultant helping writers get their own messages out through a strong and varied presence on the interwebs.

Liz has helped me a lot in the past couple of months. She has graciously allowed me to write some guest posts on her blog (here and here), and in the process, has given me some valuable exposure and advice on writing blog posts. (My paragraphs are usually way too long!)

Her blog, Uncommonplace Book, is a resource for both professional historians and folks who just love history, particularly the history of the US revolutionary and early national periods.

Go check out her website and her blog, and if you need some help branding your work on the web, Liz is definitely your go-to person. I for one will be seeking her advice when my book on American exceptionalism comes out early next year.

Library in Austin, Texas

From David Moore

Nice library! Thanks for sharing!


Soliciting Pictures of Your Libraries

Many, if not most, of the faithful readers of To Breathe Your Free Air are bibliophiles with impressive libraries of their own. As a fellow bibliophile, I am requesting that you take a cool picture of your collection and send it to me. You can shoot your picture over to me at or

Send me your pic, and I’ll post it here on the blog. In the meantime, here is mine: