Thursday, November 24, 2011

On the Eight-Legged Essay

I have recently been tutoring some early high school pupils and have been struck by how the teachers near my home in central Orange County are now rigidly combining the Schaffer paragraph with the five-paragraph essay format to produce a highly stylized, artificial, and inhibiting approach to essay writing. This immediately calls to mind the most famous and influential essay format in history, the classical Chinese eight-legged essay that examination candidates learned to master during the last four centuries of the Chinese empire (the Ming and Ching dynasties).

This Chinese format was established by a brilliant essayist in the 15th century, whose prize-winning essays became extravagantly admired, published, and copied in examination centres throughout the country; and candidates who mastered its intricate parallel structures, with precise numbers of sentences, clauses, and words designated for its eight numbered sections, won coveted positions in the imperial administration -- and some became examiners themselves, thus ensuring the reproduction of a mutually admiring, highly literate caste whose selection procedures stressed form over content, the result being that the form became steadily more artificial and irrelevant to the stresses facing China in the second half of the 19th century: administrators faced with the new challenges of Western industrialized aggressive imperialism had won their offices through writing essays that were officially forbidden to mention any events happening after the 3rd century B.C.E.!

If we want our rising generation to be equally artificial and incapable of comprehending the challenges facing America in the 21st century, we will continue to teach them rigid, constricting essay formats like that being currently promulgated. But hey, essays with approved numbers of paragraphs, sentences, quotations, and comments (we haven't gotten to precise word or letter counts yet, but who knows) are easy to grade, always an advantage conferred by substituting quantitative judgements into inherently qualitative contexts -- and the mutual convenience of overworked teachers and demanding superintendents always trumps the needs of students, both in 19th-century China and 21st-century America, regardless of any pretences to putting students first.


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