In which Paul Graham discovers that the essays they teach you to write in school are completely unlike the essays you might want to write in real life.
Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” (the cousin of our word assay), and an “essai” is an effort. An essay is something you write in order to figure something out.
Figure out what? You don’t know yet. And so you can’t begin with a thesis, because you don’t have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You see a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.
If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. 90% of what ends up in my essays was stuff I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.
The gist of his argument is that the roots of our education system lie in two endeavors
- Training medieval lawyers to argue a position
- Attempting to rediscover the wisdom of the ancients
and that, while those pursuits were relevant 600 years ago, they are no longer relevant in the 21st century and we should stop teaching kids to write as if they were.
Other though-provoking ideas:
One of the principles the IRS uses in deciding whether to allow deductions is that, if something is fun, it isn’t work. Fields that are intellectually unsure of themselves rely on a similar principle.
Indeed, English classes may even be harmful. In my case they were effectively aversion therapy. Want to make someone dislike a book? Force him to read it and write an essay about it.
History was like that for me. It took me 10 years to recover from the damage that Mrs Timm did to my love of history.
If I didn’t add that Paul Graham’s essay is a meta-essay about essay writing. He studies an unfinished essay (about essay writing) within an essay and that the quotes I quoted are not the form that they took in his final version, Paul Graham might be disgusted with me and I wouldn’t want that. The final essay is here.