Why Students Cannot Be Allowed to Learn to Write Essays

Yes, you read that title correctly.

The totalitarian impulse to interpret absolutely every facet of life as part of a grand struggle for power always runs together with comic pettiness and stupidity.

~ Mark Helprin, “The Canon Under Siege,” The New Criterion, 1988

For at least the past ten years, commentators have worried about American students’ inability to write. In 2006, one commentator said that students knew how to write, but that their instructors never made them write correctly. But with the 2011 National Center for Education Statistics survey, commentators began to emphasize that students do not even have basic writing skills. The survey stated that roughly 30% of students write at the “proficient” level or above. Additionally, only 30% of students “read daily.” (One wonders if the students who can write proficiently are the same students who read daily.)

Various reasons are given for American students’ poor writing skills. Some commentators posit that large class sizes prohibit teachers from giving students vital, individual attention. Some commentators state that teachers are poorly trained.

But American students may write poorly because of a broader ideological reason. Over the past century since the rise of Progressivism, Americans have in general lost their concern to defend their liberties; and the ability to write a strong essay is closely related to liberty. (It is important to note that many of the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution were known for their writing abilities, particularly Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, the authors of the Federalist Papers.)  When a person has the skills to write an essay expressing his views with confidence, he is exercising a great deal of liberty.


First, consider what liberty is. The essence of liberty is the absence of slavery; slavery can be physical, mental, or spiritual. A free society values its citizens’ physical, mental, and spiritual liberty. Just as free people are not physically enslaved, the minds of free people are able to consider a variety of often-contradictory ideas; spiritually, free people may choose to worship as they see fit. The only limit on a free society is that free people may not violate the God-given rights of their fellow citizens.

Second, consider the kind of liberty that essay-writing requires. Physically, writing an essay requires that the author at least have enough physical freedom to write. Mentally, writing an essay requires that the author have a great deal of intellectual freedom; when a despotic government does not allow the author intellectual freedom, the author himself must desire to use the intellectual freedom he can establish within his own mind. Consider that many individuals – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn is probably the most famous example – have written essays in nations that repress liberty. Yet just as there are limits to physical freedom, a free essayist must also be guided by intellectual or metaphysical standards such as truth and logic. This combination of freedom and discipline with which an essayist can establish intellectual freedom in his own mind allows even authors like Solzhenitsyn to write essays.

Third, consider how intellectual freedom affects essay writing. An essayist goes through six general steps in the process of writing an essay: choosing a topic, developing ideas about the topic, establishing a thesis and argument, composing the essay, and revising and editing the essay. However, potential essayists who do not have intellectual freedom – whether because of obvious government restrictions, as in Orwell’s 1984, or because of less-obvious cultural distractions, as in Huxley’s Brave New World – will not be able to complete this process.

Choosing a topic requires that the essayist be knowledgeable about the topic on which he will write. If he does not know enough about the topic, he must desire to think and to learn the truth about the topic so much that he will take care to research and learn the truth. However, those who seek to control the essayist cannot allow him to learn the truth, because the truth is that they are working to have power over their subjects. The controllers do not want the controlled to learn the truth at all. At most, the controllers can only allow the controlled to write on trivial subjects, or on subjects approved by the controllers.

Developing ideas about a topic requires the essayist to be open to a variety of ideas, even those that contradict his own. He must have the mental discipline to uphold a fixed standard of morality and truth by which he can evaluate his ideas and those of others. He must not allow himself to privilege his own ideas simply because they are his own. However, those who would want to control the essayist cannot allow him to entertain a variety of ideas. The controllers need the controlled to adhere to the controllers’ way of thinking. The controllers’ ideas become the only acceptable standard of truth and morality.

Developing a thesis and argument requires the essayist to select for himself the ideas that are most important in presenting his opinion about his topic. He must then evaluate various pieces of evidence to see which support his thesis best and build them into a clear, logical, persuasive argument. However, those seeking to control the essayist cannot allow him to deviate from their own principles. When a writer develops a thesis and puts in order evidence to support it, he is doing so to persuade those who read his work. Anyone seeking to control the essayist cannot allow him to persuade others; whether or not the essayist is trying to persuade others to go against the principles of the controllers, the power of persuasion at all is a power that the controllers cannot afford to allow others to use.

Writing an outline requires the essayist to put the information for his essay into a hierarchy. This means that the essayist must decide which information is more important than other information and which information needs to be understood first by the reader. However, anyone who wants to control the essayist cannot allow him to consider hierarchy, primacy, or order because the controlled person cannot be allowed to think that there is any other hierarchy than the controllers over himself and others who are being controlled. If the controlled consider hierarchy too long, they might come to realize that the principles of the controllers are merely a subset of the hierarchy of all information; such a thought could lead the controlled to the disastrous (for the controllers) realization that the controllers do not have a monopoly on information or authority in the universe.

Composing the essay calls on the essayist’s sense of beauty and rhythm in assembling words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and transitions. The essayist works not only with the precise definitions of words but also with their sounds and connotations. However, anyone seeking to control the essayist cannot allow him to be concerned with verbal aesthetics or anything that directs the controlled person toward creativity and beauty. The controller would not want the controlled to consider how to elevate a message, which could seem mundane, by wording that message eloquently; eloquence and beauty clash with the controller’s message that the controllers are superior to everything else in the life of the controlled.

Literary anarchy is good because a good writer addresses questions over which no human authority can ever hold sway, and therefore he must be able to resist the organizational impulse that gives rise to ministries of culture, writers’ unions, academies, and cliques.

~ Mark Helprin, “The Canon Under Siege,” The New Criterion, 1988

Revision and editing also require intellectual freedom and discipline on the part of the essayist. He must make his work as good as possible. If he does not eliminate repetition or unclear phrasing, his readers will be confused and will not understand his message. Correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization give his thoughts weight in the minds of his readers. However, those seeking to control the essayist would not necessarily want him to do his best work; as long as mediocre work helps to complete a project, there is no need or incentive to do better – and this is particularly obvious in communist or socialist nations. Those seeking to control the essayist would not want him to have credibility as a writer or thinker.

Clearly, writing an essay requires the essayist to exercise intellectual freedom within himself, whether or not he is allowed it by those in authority over him. Because Progressives have, for the past century, sought greater control over the American people – whether economically through welfare and increased taxation, socially through control of education and manipulation of ideas about sexual identity, or intellectually through political correctness – it makes sense that Americans’ writing skills have declined. Progressive ideas have become popular because Progressivism promises progress; but that “progress” costs the American people their liberty in a variety of ways, not least of which is American students’ ability to write strong essays.

Photo: Detail from Francesco di Cristofano’s Portrait of a Young Man, 1522