One of the greatest English novelists of the 20th century Edward Morgan Forster once said: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Indeed, through writing we explore the abilities of our mind, we dig out our thoughts and find the reason for our opinions and feelings.
Writing is the collaboration of our thoughts and logic spilled on the piece of paper. Writing is an absolute freedom, as it allows you to express yourself in any manner and on any subject you’re interested in.
Writing is also a great teacher, helping us master the craft of critical and analytical thinking, and essays being the most popular way to do that. The most popular writers of the XX century, including Albert Camus, Herbert Wells, and John Priestley were praising the genre of an essay for its freedom and ability to teach critical thinking. Since that time essays started spreading at the universities as a form of a task to teach students how to elaborate their ideas concerning specific subjects.
But how did it happen to become so popular? How and when did it originate?
The origin of the essay as the genre
Essay writing has a long and interesting history. This genre originated approximately in the XV-XVI century, and was supposedly created by Michel de Montaigne, the author of the “Experiments”. However, there are some opinions that this genre arose much earlier. It is fair to assume that Plato’s dialogues look somewhat like essays, however, they are singled out into a specific genre of their own. Nevertheless, it’s fair to think that they had the same function as essays, as they elaborate a certain idea on a particular subject, involve critical thinking and introduce personal opinion.
The time has passed but interestingly enough the nature of an essay hasn’t changed much, as we still see the same purpose of it: writing essays makes our thoughts on any subjects clear and more structured. That is why this genre has been used not only by literary critics but also by many philosophers like Denis Diderot and even mathematicians like Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton. These famous scientists discovered for themselves that essay writing is the key to elaborate their ideas and turn them into theories that later will change the vision of science.
It’s interesting, however, that essay, being a very popular genre of literature, has never had a precise definition. Moreover, this genre hasn’t had a distinct categorization. All types of essays that have been introduced are considered rather relative. This fact can be explained by the extreme versatility of this genre, as it is used by many sciences and fields. It is a scientific tool and, at the same time, it is a teaching tool as well. It teaches us to reflect, to compare and contrast, give arguments, develop narrations and think critically.
Essay writing as the way to cultivate critical thinking
University students often deal with writing essays, and the teachers often use it as a great way to help students better understand the subject. Essay writing is a great rhetorical tool for students to express their arguments on any scientific subject. It is also highly flexible and any teacher can adjust it to the requirements of a subject. While writing essays, students learn how to display structured arguments using an essay as a medium. Together, essays, theses, and dissertations are genres that are widely used at the universities to help students structure their arguments on a particular topic, develop their own content creation technology, and learn the skills of critical thinking.
Essay writing at the university has acquired a kind of a normative nature that sometimes makes students annoyed and deprived of the freedom of expression. However, what it actually does is channeling the ideas and arguments to help build a well-structured narrative. And while the requirements for the university essays may vary from subject to subject, they are all united by the one requirement of in-depth study and introducing the subject from different perspectives.
So, let’s say a student is given a task to research the phenomenon of capital punishment and write an essay on its effectiveness. This one would be a critical thinking essay with the requirement of an in-depth study of the capital punishment and its pros and cons. So while writing this essay a student shouldn’t only dwell upon the positive sides of capital punishment only because the task says to describe its effectiveness, but also to introduce some negative experience and then draw a conclusion agreeing or disagreeing with the statement given in the title.
Thus, that’s how writing essays helps develop critical thinking among students. This is the way to wean off the students from stereotyped thinking and help them understand that every phenomenon has two sides, which have to be argued and reasoned. And that’s what critical thinking is all about – an objective understanding of a certain phenomenon.
Why writing essays became so popular among US Universities
Essay writing at the US universities is one of the most popular forms of assignment. But let’s face it: students hate writing them. The reasons for it may vary from just not liking the topic to not having time to write it.
Yes, this is a very time-consuming task, however, professors find it very effective (although I should admit, as a professor, that grading essays is as boring as writing them). Throughout my practice, I’ve learned that writing essays helps not only develop critical thinking, but also learn the skill of researching and selecting appropriate resources, understand and evaluate them, support an argument with these materials and, ultimately, give an appropriate and reasoned feedback.
So, to sum it up, this type of assignment involves the whole range of academic skills, and that’s why it’s so popular. What professors like the most about this assignment, however, is that it teaches students how to introduce a structured argument. Common mistakes that are often made by students is including too much description and biased representation of the subject. But these mistakes often vanish after students learn how critical thinking actually works and start following the rules of analytical argumentation.
There’s another type of assignment used in the US universities that teaches students critical thinking, and that is the debate. Often without any preparation, students, being divided into two teams supporting and rejecting a particular idea, discuss the issue, and this discussion is often supported by a professor.
While both the debate and essays help develop analytical thinking, essays differ only because they require deliberate preparation and well-grounded arguments, supported by scientific facts, statistics, and various studies. Also, essays, as any other literary genre, have a climax, which is the most crucial argument any student defends or denies. It’s possible to say that the whole “story” told in an essay revolves and evolves around this particular argument and then is fixated in the conclusion.
The process of preparation to writing any essay involves many techniques which are adored and respected by the professors in any US university, like brainstorming and breaking the topic down into sub-topics and building up a narration out of it, efficient reading and selecting proper material. Writing and thinking is another great technique which involves writing all the thoughts down, developing them while thinking about a particular topic. It also involves drawing a mind-map with a central topic and any related topics which will further be explained in an essay.
These are those reasons why essays have become popular if only not the most popular type of assignment in the US universities. The variety of skills and techniques which are involved in the essay writing process is practical and promising. However, I would say that any student needs a proper instruction and support from a professor to understand that essay writing is a perfect way to learn how to think critically and structure thoughts and ideas well.
Amazingly, the genre of essay constantly continues to evolve. And it’s wonderful to see how the Internet actually changes the whole understanding of essays, too. I could say that blogs posted on the Internet every minute are a kind of essays, as they have their particular structure, mostly have well-grounded arguments and counter-arguments supported by reliable data and a conclusion that sums up the whole discussion. As it was said, essay is a very flexible genre that could be adjusted to any subject and any field.
One cannot argue the role of essay writing at the universities. Even at schools students are given this assignment as a kind of preparing them for their future studies at the universities, but at schools, essays are of a more general nature. At the universities students start studying the field they will be working in after graduating, thus they through essays they learn how to think critically and analyze the subjects closely connected to their future profession.
One also cannot argue the role of the skills learned and developed through essay writing. Critical thinking is necessary for any job, and essay writing is one of the most effective tools to learn how to think critically. The variety of skills it teaches students is amazing, making students more flexible and helping them think objectively.