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.


2 responses to “Whither the College Essay?

  1. Speaking of the teacher demonstrating through writing, bravo on “The ‘Tergiversation’ of Antony Flew.” I now stand convinced to read those journals when they are distributed!

    Thank you for modeling through scholarship, writing, and defending the faith.

    Soli Deo Gloria

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