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But don't change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original. I'd much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. When friends came back from faraway places, it wasn't just out of politeness that I asked what they saw. And I found the best way to get information out of them was to ask what surprised them.How was the place different from what they expected? You can ask it of the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn't even know they were recording.
In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. Outside writers tend to supply editorials of the defend-a-position variety, which make a beeline toward a rousing (and foreordained) conclusion. But what you tell him doesn't matter, so long as it's interesting. At one point in this essay I found that after following a certain thread I ran out of ideas.
You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. In the things you write in school you are, in theory, merely explaining yourself to the reader. But the staff writers feel obliged to write something "balanced." Since they're writing for a popular magazine, they start with the most radioactively controversial questions, from which-- because they're writing for a popular magazine-- they then proceed to recoil in terror. I had to go back seven paragraphs and start over in another direction.
But Harvard didn't have a professor of English literature until 1876, and Oxford not till 1885. And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors.
(Oxford had a chair of Chinese before it had one of English.) What tipped the scales, at least in the US, seems to have been the idea that professors should do research as well as teach. 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? This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that's what the professor is interested in. The seeds of our miserable high school experiences were sown in 1892, when the National Education Association "formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course."  The 'riting component of the 3 Rs then morphed into English, with the bizarre consequence that high school students now had to write about English literature-- to write, without even realizing it, imitations of whatever English professors had been publishing in their journals a few decades before.
This idea (along with the Ph D, the department, and indeed the whole concept of the modern university) was imported from Germany in the late 19th century. It's no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we're now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.
Beginning at Johns Hopkins in 1876, the new model spread rapidly. 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.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. As European scholarship gained momentum it became less and less important; by 1350 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. And after the lecture the most common form of discussion was the disputation.This is at least nominally preserved in our present-day thesis defense: most people treat the words thesis and dissertation as interchangeable, but originally, at least, a thesis was a position one took and the dissertation was the argument by which one defended it.Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere. Those are like experiments that get inconclusive results. You already know where you're going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But not the specific conclusions I want to reach; from paragraph to paragraph I let the ideas take their course. Sometimes, like a river, one runs up against a wall.An essay is something you write to try to figure something out. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. The things I've written just for myself are no good. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea. Particularly the sort written by the staff writers of newsmagazines. One thing is certain: the question is a complex one. We didn't draw any conclusions.)The River Questions aren't enough. An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn't already know. But that's not what you're trying to do in an essay. Then I do the same thing the river does: backtrack.Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. The real problem is that you can't change the question.And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school.With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years.Around 1100, Europe 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." The effect was rather as if we were visited by beings from another solar system.