Why Students Should Have to Learn How to Write Discursive Essays
by Tina Blue
In my years of teaching composition to college students, I have discovered that one of the main obstacles to their learning the skills I teach is their conviction that those skills are nice to have, but not essential--unless, of course, they plan a career that is likely to require them to write a lot. Most students would
like to write easily and well, but they do not feel an overwhelming need to.
As it happens, however, writing essays is one of the best ways to develop the mental skills necessary for learning and thinking. Despite the widely held belief that human beings are rational animals, the fact is that we are no such thing--at least not naturally. What we are is
capable of rational thought. We have the capacity to learn how to reason, but that capacity does not come to fruition without careful nurturing. Just as the skilled athlete has, through diligent effort and application, honed physical capacities that are inherent but not well developed in most human beings, so the skilled thinker has studied and trained himself to apply mental skills in a manner beyond the reach of most untrained minds.
The exercise of rational thought or procedure to analyze a subject and to express in an orderly way the judgments arrived at through such analysis is called "discourse." Writing which aims to arrive at an understanding of a subject--or to make such an understanding possible for the reader by leading him through the steps of rational analysis of that subject--is called "discursive" writing.
Virtually all of the writing required of a student in high school or college should be discursive, and it is a truly unfortunate trend that highly personal and so-called "creative" writing has often been allowed to replace discursive writing in much of the curriculum. The function of training in discursive writing is to enable the student to learn the habits and techniques of discursive thought, not to provide him with an outlet for expressing his feelings or "telling his story."
Certainly some types of essay are expressive in these ways, and self-expression is a valid and valuable mode of communication. But such essays are precisely not the sort of writing that students should be doing in most of their classes. When a student draws on his personal experience in discursive writing, it should not be in order to reveal himself, but rather in order to illuminate the subject under discussion. The examples offered from experience should point not inward, but outward, to universal concerns. Unfortunately, though, in our confessional culture virtually all discourse gets co-opted by the impulse toward self-revelation.
The etymology of the word "discourse" is particularly interesting in this context. It comes to us from Latin, through French, and the word it derives from means to run back and forth. The purpose of discursive reasoning and writing is to "run back and forth" over a subject until it is completely understood--i.e., to thoroughly cover the ground. It is an act of learning or of teaching, not an act of personal self-expression, and certainly not an act of self-indulgence, as is so much "creative" writing.
The attempt to write an essay or report about a subject will lead to a deeper understanding of that topic and to the long-term retention of the knowledge thus gained. But no student writes essays about every subject he studies, and therefore essay-writing, though highly effective as a means of acquiring information about and of understanding a specific subject, is too sporadically engaged in to constitute the principal method for that kind of learning.
On the other hand, discursive writing is a process which exercises both simultaneously and sequentially all of the mental skills needed for learning new information and for thinking deeply and carefully about important or difficult ideas: observation, analysis, classification, analogy, synthesis, verbalization, and memory.
And in addition to the knowledge the student gains concerning whatever subject he writes about, he will also take from the writing process an improved mind. He will have been training his mind to engage in careful, systematic analysis and to form opinions or draw conclusions from such reasoning, rather than from ignorance or whim. Such skills will aid him in mastering any subject he chooses to study.
The writing requirement, both in public schools and in college, can be justified on any number of grounds, but one justification seems to me sufficient: writing discursive essays will make a person smarter.
If essay-writing is your particular interest, see my
"Essay, I Say" website for articles on how to do it better and more easily--or how to teach your students to.