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Undergraduate Essay

"In Praise of the Undergraduate Essay"

by French professor Dan Edelstein

When the historian of the future seeks to identify the reason why American universities enjoyed an unrivaled global reputation for excellence, she would do well not to forget the much maligned undergraduate essay in the humanities.

Few adults, no doubt, harbor particularly fond memories of penning five pages on Macbeth, the Civil War, or Emerson. Probably most do not even remember what they wrote.

And yet, if one steps back and reflects on the intellectual processes and abilities required to compose even the shortest essay, it will become apparent that writing—and more specifically, writing in the humanities—is responsible for teaching students how to think in innovative ways, and may help explain the success of the American university. Writing should accordingly be granted greater importance and attention in the academic curriculum. Let me begin by illustrating this point with an anecdote.

For the last four years, I have taught an Introduction in the Humanities (IHUM) course at Stanford on “Epic Journeys, Modern Quests.” All incoming freshmen must choose from one of these dozen or so introductory courses; in the one I teach, they read literary works ranging from Gilgamesh to The Trial, and write a series of papers analyzing the texts along the way.

Because IHUM is a required course, we meet students who would not normally wander into a literature course, and who are often destined for majors in engineering, human biology, or computer science. Typically, the students who have the most difficulty with their essays were educated in Asian countries (mostly Singapore, China, and Korea). They tend to be among the brightest students in the class; but they find our writing exercises baffling. We are supposed to come up with an original thesis, they ask? How are we meant to do that? Never before had they been asked to think about a text for themselves.

In high school they had only been required to show they had absorbed what their instructors had said in class. Devising an original argument seems almost heretical to them. It is a largely foreign concept in their school cultures. American culture and economy, on the other hand, place an almost unrivaled premium on originality. Rarely do we consider, however, how originality gets taught. To be sure, universities such as Stanford offer classes in, say, mechanical engineering, in which students are called upon to invent new designs and products. But these courses tend to be reserved for upper-level students. The purpose of most basic math or science classes is not to encourage original thinking.

If you take a calculus exam and get the same answers as ten other students in the class, you may well get an A. If your essay thesis for a history course is the same as ten other students in the class, you most likely will not. The value of the humanities in the academic curriculum is a topic of endless debate. Some, like Stanley Fish, claim they are essentially useless (a good thing, in his opinion); others argue in favor of the cultural, ethical, and aesthetical benefits they can provide. Framed in this manner, however, the debate over the humanities overlooks their broader pedagogical importance.

Regardless of the topic, humanities courses provide students with lessons in innovation from day one. Good professors model original thinking for their students in their lectures, which is one of the reasons why the best teachers are often found at research universities. Students in turn learn how to examine topics under new light. Whether they go on to become software engineers, surgeons, or physicists, this primary training in innovative thought will help them imagine, invent, and create the world of the future.

The modest undergraduate essay carries a great weight on its shoulders. One might expect universities to appreciate how writing for the humanities encourages innovative thinking, yet rarely is this the case. Writing classes are mostly designed for freshmen and taught by post-doctoral instructors—meaning that both administrators and students tend to view them as tedious obligations. The art of conceiving an original argument is taken for granted in upper level (and even graduate) courses in the humanities, with predictably mixed results. Professors and deans ought to recognize that writing is a skill to be taught in every class, not simply for its own sake, but as a privileged way of teaching students how they can produce new knowledge.

Dan Edelstein is an assistant professor of French at Stanford University. He recently completed a book entitled The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago, forthcoming fall 2009).

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