Form and Wobble

I want to end the year with a return to woodworking as a metaphor for writing. It helps me to express my puzzlement at critiques of the five-paragraph essay. I recently read David Labaree’s contribution to this debate in Aeon from a couple of years ago. Here’s his description of what he calls “the five-paragraph fetish”.

The form becomes the product. Teachers teach the format as a tool; students use the tool to create five paragraphs that reflect the tool; teachers grade the papers on their degree of alignment with the tool. The form helps students to reproduce the form and get graded on this form. Content, meaning, style, originality and other such values are extraneous – nice but not necessary.

What puzzles me about this criticism is that it is presented as part of an outright rejection of the form rather than a measured critique of its fetishization. (This is a long-standing problem in my attempts to engage with anti-five-paragraph activism.) After all, it’s hard to see what could be wrong with teaching students to use a tool and then testing them on their ability to use it. What seems to be happening — what makes it a “fetish” — is that students are taught to merely invoke the tool, rather than to actually handle it skillfully. The five-paragraph essay becomes a ritual rather than a craft.

Consider the carpenter’s apprentice. When making a table, she will have to join four legs to a tabletop, perhaps by way of a box apron. The final product may contain nine individual pieces of wood, some glue, perhaps some screws or nails. But surely we will not give her a top grade simply for arranging nine pieces of wood in a table-like form? Competence will be revealed in everything from the choice of materials to the care that was taken in joining them together. The master will have many different ways to test the table beyond its mere conformity, i.e., its “reproduction of form”.

And this really is what I don’t understand about the argument against the five-paragraph essay. Surely, we can grade “content, meaning, style, originality,” and form? Surely, we can ask the students to write a formally correct essay and make a genuinely compelling argument? The fact that the apprentice submitted a 90 cm x 90 cm table with four legs should not cause us to overlook its wobble.

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