There are many tensions at work in any discussion about what happens in the classroom: what is taught, what is assessed and what this assessment should look like. The one I’m interested in today finds one of its extremes represented, at least in the English classroom, by the ‘Analytical Literary Essay’. I’m talking about the tension between the relevance of the product of assessment versus the purity of the understandings required in its production.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand this ‘tension’ is to frame it within the entire schooling journey. Think of the kindergarten program of play-based learning as the starting point. Play and fun is the most relevant and most natural activity in this environment and the learning simply develops out of the careful management of this behaviour.
If assessment is carried out, it is by observation, by anecdote or set as simple tasks that flow naturally from what the student is already fully engaged with. Juxtapose that with the final external exams we expose our Year 12 students to, and we see a marked difference. There is little that is natural or engaging about the exam room with its associated pressure and subject-specific requirements. Obviously, this comparison is quite extreme, but the journey students make from one end of this to the other involves a step-by-step move from a focus on engagement and integration toward more abstract and specific knowledge and skill sets.
It is at this “specific knowledge and skill sets” point where we meet the dreaded essay. It seems I may be on a bit of a theme with my newsletter contributions here as my previous article could be understood as a tacit defence of Shakespeare and it is my intention to defend (perhaps a little dramatic) the genre of essay here.
The analytical literary essay in its pure form is quite an abstract piece of writing, largely irrelevant to non-academic audiences and viewed with justifiable scepticism for those very reasons. It does, however, serve two quite important educational purposes.
Firstly, as a genre, essay represents a medium for the construction of knowledge. In a world where opinions hold great sway and the idea of truth is itself an abstract conversation, the essay remains a purposeful attempt to create an assertion that is actually evident. I explain it to students with the instruction that: “you must say only what you can prove and prove only what you have said”. There will be a thesis (a piece of knowledge we are attempting to create) and there will be evidence that is carefully and intentionally selected with the express purpose of supporting this thesis. There is something quite pure about this idea, and while the reality is often not as lofty as all of this, the attempt, and the thinking involved in it, is the real value of the genre. That we must find solid examples and evidence for the point of our argument. That we ought to be able to articulate our positions to others with logos (logic) devoid of rhetoric or appeals to emotion. That the explanation and exchange of ideas that are evident is still of vital importance in society. These things find their manifestation more powerfully in a carefully structured and well-supported essay, than any other written genre available to students.
Literature is not benign
Secondly, the idea of generating this ‘knowledge’ about literature highlights to students the constructed nature of all the ‘texts’ they are surrounded by, and this revelation is essential today. Whether you love or hate literature, whether you read for fun or only when required every individual on earth today is surrounded by texts and very few of them are benign. There is a huge marketing machine permanently pointed at students/our kids and it is almost relentless, thanks to the proliferation of mobile computing. These ‘texts’ take many different forms but a vast majority of them are designed ultimately as marketing. The ‘representations’ presented in them, of youth, of beauty, of success, of God, shape not only their spending, as they were intended to do, but their perceptions of themselves, their place in the world and all those around them.
The very purpose of a literary essay is for students to identify and articulate the nature and composition of these representations and this is a literacy ‘type’ that has never been more important. A well-developed analytical ability is one of the best defences a young person can have against the many of the harmful ‘truths’ circulating in our society, giving them the cognitive tools to discern, to search and to demand evidence for the claims they come across, be they from marketing, peers, an increasingly stratified society or the quiet of their own mind.
I can’t imagine a society obsessed with the 30-second sound bite and the 15-second TikTok reel is likely to bring the essay back into vogue. I would like to think, however, that its value in the classroom is nonetheless for it.
Rob Maguire, Head of English