Five Paragraphs in Defense of the Essay

A couple of years ago, Brian Sztabnik published a post at the Talks with Teachers blog called “Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay”. It began by pointing out that the most popular posts at Edutopia that year had not been five paragraph essays. “Not a single one is five paragraphs. Not one has paragraph after paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence.” Instead, argued Sztabnik, they were “authentic”, and this, he proposed, provides a much better model for student writing. In response, Robert Sheppard wrote a post at the TESOL Blog, defending the genre and the exercise. It’s a perfectly cogent effort, and I agree with much of what he says, but he, too, did not write a five-paragraph essay. In this post, I want to take up Sztabnik’s implicit challenge and write a five-paragraph essay in defense of the five-paragraph essay. Like Sheppard, I want to argue that the genre does not preclude authenticity, nor stifle creativity. Moreover, the ability to compose oneself in five coherent paragraphs is a valuable skill that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and, indeed, to test.

Sztabnik’s concerns about the genre follow naturally from his concerns about standardized testing. “By its very definition,” he reminds us, “to standardize means to make something conform, to make homogenous. And since what gets tested gets taught, all originality, creativity, and authenticity has been sucked out of student writing to standardize it for an exam.” There is no question that the five-paragraph essay is a standard form and that if you’re going to test it you should teach it. But when we require a native Dane to write in English we are not demanding inauthenticity; we are offering them a new language in which to express themselves authentically.  By its very definition, we might say, prose demands conformity. But to demand that students express themselves in an essay is not to demand they stop being themselves. They are to be themselves in a particular way under particular conditions, that is all. It is difficult to be yourself while mastering a complex body of knowledge about literature, history, society, or cosmology. Coherent prose, we might say, simply helps us to overcome this difficulty without “losing ourselves” in the details.

By a similar token, when we teach music students the arpeggios needed to play the prelude in C major of the Well-Tempered Clavier we are not destroying their creativity. Rather, we are inviting them to experience a way of doing something that achieves a particular range of effects; we are giving them new skills to express real emotions. With those skills in (as it were) hand, they can be as creative or uncreative as they like. Being skilled does not make it more difficult for them to express their creativity, it only makes it easier to accomplish particular creative goals. Do we imagine that developing the skills of drawing hands and faces somehow stifles the creativity of the artist? Do we imagine that the painter is hindered by understanding how paints can be combined to produce particular colors, and colors to produce effects like the play of light on the surface of a lake? Likewise, to teach someone to compose a coherent paragraph, and then a series of them to produce a compelling argument, is not a way of restricting a creative impulse. It’s range of things we can do with such an impulse.

The five-paragraph essay, I will insist, demonstrates a valuable skill. The genre is useful in itself for the organization of short presentations or the individual parts of longer ones. It is entirely possible to write a full journal article as a series of five-paragraph essays, at least as a first approximation. Once the five-paragraph version of an argument, or part of an argument, exists, the writer, having invested a measured amount of effort so far, can decide whether further efforts to produce a more “interesting” version is needed. (Note that I do not say a more “authentic” or more “creative” version. The writer may have been as a authentic and creative as can be within the allotted time and space.) Often, a series of good, clear paragraphs is all that the occasion demands. Each will have set down what the writer believes along with the grounds on which the reader, too, should believe such things. Each paragraph will have supported, elaborated or defended a well-defined claim, affording the reader an opportunity to engage with that claim and demonstrate its rightness or wrongness. It makes the conversation of scholarship among learned people possible. It makes learning possible. Students who learn how to represent everything they know in coherent prose paragraphs will not regret the time spent developing that ability.

We can all agree that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and to test the skills students need to become knowledgeable people. Knowledgeable people, when faced with a situation that falls within their domain of knowledge, are able to make up their minds efficiently and accurately about what is going on. They are able to converse intelligently about their reasons to think one thing or another about a particular matter. And they are able to write these thoughts and those reasons down in such a way that other knowledgeable people can help them think even more effectively about the question. The five-paragraph essay demands that students organize their thoughts in a way that opens them to reasoned critique by other thinkers, similarly organized, and, as I have argued here, there’s no reason to think that these cannot be entirely authentic and creative thoughts. In order to “conform”, the students must make decisions about what to say and discover their basis for saying so. And they must then present these decisions in clear and coherent prose. In short,  the five-paragraph essay represents the very skills that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and to test.

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