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September 2004Remember the essays you had to write in high school?
In that case, in the course of the conversation I'll be forced to come up a with a clearer explanation, which I can just incorporate in the essay. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting.
More often than not I have to change what I was saying as well. As the reader gets smarter, convincing and true become identical, so if I can convince smart readers I must be near the truth. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.
That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins.
It's often mistakenly believed that medieval universities were mostly seminaries. And at least in our tradition lawyers are advocates, trained to take either side of an argument and make as good a case for it as they can.
But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer. The first courses in English literature seem to have been offered by the newer colleges, particularly American ones.
The archaeological work being mostly done, it implied that those studying the classics were, if not wasting their time, at least working on problems of minor importance. Dartmouth, the University of Vermont, Amherst, and University College, London taught English literature in the 1820s.But don't change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original. I'd much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. When friends came back from faraway places, it wasn't just out of politeness that I asked what they saw. And I found the best way to get information out of them was to ask what surprised them.How was the place different from what they expected? You can ask it of the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn't even know they were recording.With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years.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.The time was then ripe for the question: if the study of ancient texts is a valid field for scholarship, why not modern texts?The answer, of course, is that the original raison d'etre of classical scholarship was a kind of intellectual archaeology that does not need to be done in the case of contemporary authors.If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Well, there precisely is Montaigne's great discovery. 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. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. It's not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don't find it. Interfaces, as Geoffrey James has said, should follow the principle of least astonishment. I was afraid of flying for a long time and could only travel vicariously.Whether cause or effect, this spirit pervaded early universities.The study of rhetoric, the art of arguing persuasively, was a third of the undergraduate curriculum.