Writing and Rule-Following

If you’ve ever taken a college composition course, you have a gotten a good feel for the ethos of rule-following that pervades the world of essay writing.

What a pity!

Essay writing is one of the great forms of ideological expression. Such great authors as C. S. Lewis, Victor Hugo, and F. Scott Fitzgerald used essays at various points in their careers as a launch pad for radical views and thoughts. And yet, you will not find many hallmarks of the A+ college essay in their works. Instead, they are the nonfiction form of a short story: exploratory and full of curiosity.

As one currently suffering through a composition course, it’s come to my attention just how bland our curriculum of teaching writing has become.

A quick browse through my online course reveals a plethora of “example essays”; pieces that garnered the approval of my instructor in past classes.

As I postpone the writing of my own essay, I examine these. You would be hard-pressed to find anything duller. The grim conformity to rubrics and rules has made these essays full of “rhetorical analysis” and “supporting evidence” — but you won’t find a scrap of true thought or belief in them. I think of the bright, hopeful tones of C. S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory. What a contrast! The difference between writing a poem and reciting one.

Students like me are so worried about making the grade that we are forced to argue views that already have societal support and media attention. Why think originally when it requires more work, as well as less certainty of success? Nobody wants to talk about what they care about – not really, anyway – because it would require straying off the beaten path and risking a C or a D.

A true challenging topic is one that challenges the way others think. Instructors, however, seem to think a challenging topic is merely an opportunity to argue either side of the same old, pre-canvassed hot topics: environmental issues, for example. How boring! There is no room in which to put anything forth for oneself.

In the words of the poet Stephen Crane:

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”   

So many of us write our words in the footsteps of the wayfarer. Our most poignant topics are doused with the water of academic dogma, and shortly fizzle out.

An essay should be a broad banner, airing the author’s views. It should be a piece of art that is functional, like a gorgeously wrought chair or a stone arch. Why conform any longer to the beckoning of mass-produced words? A grade is a grade is a grade is a grade.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them in the comments. (Rubric not required). 





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