Much of the effort Britain spends in educating its young involves forcing them to write essays to be graded. Examinations consist of perhaps three questions, each of which gets a three page answer. In response, of course, the teaching centres around writing essays. After all, they need to practise for the exam papers. And, also of course, the essays that get written for practise come as close to the exam papers as possible. “Don’t worry,” one of my daughter’s teachers told me recently, “by the time she’ll get to the exam, she’ll already have written on all the questions.”
Generally, essays are a good thing. Communication is important and writing a good essay can force someone to confront the full complexity of the world, and sort through conflicting evidence. A good essay will construct a logical argument based on solid facts that is simultaneously an interesting story.
Or will it?
A good paper, in the educational context, is whatever the examiners say is a good paper. And, examiners, in an effort to be more objective, are treating papers more like box-ticking exercises. [God help us when we automate the process of marking essays.] “Uh huh: mentioned pidgins. No syntactic input, yup. Creole, tick, Bickerton, tick.” That makes essays much like multiple choice tests: you can imagine the student thinking is in resonance: “OK. There’s my mention of Universal Grammar, now, somewhere I need to mention `critical period…'”
It would be easy to bemoan how standardization emphasizes the mediocre at the expense of the brilliant. Instead, let’s ask a question that will eventually have a solid answer. If we are to require students to mention certain facts and ideas in an essay, we can ask “What’s the odds that these alleged facts will survive?” Suppose we were to step forward about 20 years (half of someone’s career) then look back at the exam papers. Would we nod, laugh, or groan?
That might be a good goal: to teach people a framework of facts and theories that will last a while. But only a few facts, and only the best theories, because with the internet, they can search for everything else.
Facts are cheap these days.