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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. 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… 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. But schools change slower than scholarship. In the 19th century the study of ancient texts was still the backbone of the curriculum – Paul Graham
In this quote from The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham explains how knowledge and writing have been held back due to teaching curriculum throughout the ages. First came the Medieval scholars, who then congregated into the universities to study the Arts, Theology, Law, and Medicine. Graham considers these universities were more like law schools, where you spent 1/3 of your time in Rhetoric, and were required to know both sides of the argument. To finish your education, you submitted a thesis on an idea and the dissertation was the argument by which you defended it. In addition, the importance of learning Greek, Latin, and classical writings was the essence of the British Public School (for the elites) until relatively recently.
As well as teach, professors do research in the US, which was an idea imported from Germany in the late 19th century. Professors in math, science, and even history can do original research, but what research is available on writing? The closest area was English literature, so the professors wrote about that subject. However, an expert on literature need not be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter. Since many High School teachers were taught composition by English professors, they also focused on English Literature:
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.
In High School, the topic paragraph is your (chosen in advance) thesis, the supporting paragraphs are your arguments, and your conclusion is the equivalent of remarks to a jury. This method does not reword original thinking, so Graham proposes the essay method.
In 1580, Michel de Montaigne published a book called “Essais,” based on the French word Essayer which means “to try.” An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. Montaigne’s great discovery was to sit and think. Expressing ideas in an essay helps form them, but to you need to write them for an audience. As Graham says:
Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.
Many essays peter out in the same way, particularly those written by staff writers of publications, who try to write something “balanced.” Like tepid tea, they have little flavor within them. An essay is a search for truth, and becomes suspicious if it didn’t meander like a river. The river can twist and turn, but flows down to the sea. Graham suggests that this flow can be interesting, but if it gets stuck, back up a few paragraphs and start over.
Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought– but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. But don’t change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original.
Graham is a polymath in computer science, along with being an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author, and essayist. In this 2004 essay about essays (e.g. the famous self-reference paradox) he meanders quite a bit, and I’ve tried to condense his major ideas into this conversation. He finishes the essay with:
The Internet is changing that. Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.
Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.
Less than six years later, Ricochet confirms this concept. And Graham’s essay might help you write a better Ricochet conversation.Published in