The research paper is an almost unavoidable aspect of contemporary college education, where it has been ensconced for a long time; it enjoys popularity even in humanities courses. The advocates of the research paper argue that, in engaging the bibliographical method and the broad-ranging survey of scholarly opinion, it nudges students into independent acquisition of knowledge beyond what professorial lectures and the course-related basic reading, by themselves, can convey.
The research paper originated in the German universities in the nineteenth century, reflecting a bureaucratic concept of higher education in which faculty and student body alike performed largely clerical functions. The research paper entails deferential activity, through which the writer links up with the chain of academic diligence while cataloguing minute discrepancies of scholarly judgment.
I have come strongly to doubt the rationale for the research paper and believe that it is no longer useful or justifiable.
I reach that conclusion primarily on the grounds that the research paper, with its cool postponement of a judgment, reinforces the prevailing relativism of the professorial mentality and campus culture. In addition, the gross multiplication of sources and references since the onset of the Internet has put the task of student research effectively beyond instructor supervision, and the tracking down of sources is nowadays for most students largely the exploitation of automated resources.
The pre-Internet era research paper helped nourish intuition about sources. The Internet- era research paper, however, tends mainly to reinforce the already existing and intellectually debilitating notion that finding respectable material on a topic is something that digital devices are supposed to do. As the devices proliferate and the tasks become entirely digitized and non-subject-involving, the need for living, intuition-informed human judgment becomes all the more urgent and pressing.
The essay is the genre that answers to the emergency. The essay, not the research paper, best suits the desperate need of badly prepared students to come to terms with primary sources and to apply the wisdom of belles-lettres to the contemporary social, cultural, and political situation.
The essay has a history worth knowing. It acquired its defining characteristics in the period of the Reformation, a time of fierce sectarian conflicts. Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) put the title Essaies, a term that he had coined, on his massive collection of prose meditations published in 1580. But the essayistic genre, as Montaigne himself lets on, has deep roots in antiquity, all the way back to the Greek aphorists of the sixth-century BC. Especially when the so-called Pre-Socratic or Ionian philosophers turned their interest to moral topics, they invented the type of sharply focused, precisely worded sentential pronouncement for which modern European languages continue to use various Greek lexemes: aphorism, apothegm, and thesis.
Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) articulated the principle of thetic specification. He wrote of the intellectual imperative to “say how each thing truly is” (Fragment 1, Haxton’s translation). Honoring this imperative called for unprejudiced openness to reality combined with heuristic skepticism about secondhand knowledge. People who “dull their wits with gibberish” forfeit the ability to “use their eyes and ears.” So, in Heraclitus’ judgment, “many fail to grasp what they have seen and cannot judge what they have learned.”
Montaigne’s direct precursor is the Greek writer Plutarch (46 – 120 AD), best known for his vivacious Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, but also the author of more than a hundred moralia, as they came to be called in Latin, whose range of topics is dizzying. Plutarch wrote informal treatises on such subjects as Listening, The Face in the Moon, The Slowness of God to Punish, How to Distinguish a Flatterer from a Friend, Contentment, The Use of Reason by “Irrational” Animals, and Being Aware of Moral Progress.
Learning how to compose an aphorism, an apothegm, or a thesis, which students can glean from Plutarch and Montaigne, is more valuable than making a digitally mediated survey of standing opinion on a topic. Learning how to identify a meaningful topic is more edifying for students than achieving a Bill-O’Reilly-type of “fairness and balance.”
An objection arises. Professor Clever Boots reminds me that Plutarch’s moralia are replete with quotations, allusions, and references. He asks, “Doesn’t that Plutarchic moral essay that you so admire show all the traits of a research paper?” The answer is no. The quotations, allusions, and references in Plutarch’s moralia, as in Montaigne’s essays, give evidence of nothing so paltry as “research.” Plutarch, and after him Montaigne, drew their supporting material from a lifetime of dedicated and habitual literate activity, one element of which was keeping a commonplace book, in which they copied out passages that struck them as formulating truths in powerful ways.
The lifelong habit of literacy is as far as it is possible to get from what composition instructors and others nowadays ask students to do in writing research papers. Both Plutarch and Montaigne often quoted from memory, so deeply had they internalized their reading since youth. Both writers were philosophers in the etymological sense: “lovers of wisdom,” whose essays are attempts to discern the truth about something, and thus also to render judgments. The noun “essay” derives from the French verb essayer, in English “to try.” The term implies a strong non-dogmatic ideal, which entails being decorous as well as tentative, while yet being forthrightly convicted, in one’s judgments.
Professor Clever Boots is waving his arms again. He protests that rhetoric and composition instructors frequently use essay-anthologies in conjunction with their courses. I fear that the professor has missed the point. There are topics, of the kind that readers encounter in Plutarch and Montaigne, and then there is a certain vulgar topicality, nowadays almost exclusively resentment-driven in its animus and almost exclusively political in its content, that plagues the college textbook industry.
The expensive, ever-updated anthologies for composition students, to which the intemperate professor refers, invariably marshal together recent—all too recent—and utterly predictable declarations of the victimological dogmas so dear to the Left, and they tediously rehearse one more time the litany of fixed positions of what calls itself, with no justification whatsoever, critical thinking. If I did not object to these costly volumes on the grounds of their ideological tendentiousness, I would object to them on the grounds of their breathless recentness. It is unforgivable to abandon students in the ghetto of the present moment and restrict their notion of discourse to a few hoary tropes, popular today, that were already clichés in 1848.
The classic essayists from Montaigne to G. K. Chesterton were idiosyncratic to a fault. They rarely agreed with one another about anything, but in a few noticeable cases their judgments converged. One unanimous convergence concerned the corrupting influence of journalism and political sloganeering on the collective mentality of the nations. Henry David Thoreau and Søren Kierkegaard, otherwise entirely unalike, foresaw that gossip and exhortation, masquerading as discourse, would obscure the topics and discussions that were actually essential for the self-governing individual in a well-governed polity.
Friedrich Nietzsche—whose second book, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, treated the Pre-Socratics, including Heraclitus—would have agreed with Thoreau and Kierkegaard. Then again Chesterton, on the subject of pamphleteering, would have agreed with the other three. In a conversation about anything else, the four would quickly and sharply have squared off. In any case, students already know the preformed jejune conclusions of the writers whose screeds herd together in Question Authority: Giant Peel-Off Bumper-Stickers for Freshman Writers. The publisher, I believe, is Goodthink and Deconstructit.
By liberating students from the present, and liberating them from the automated processes that now govern the generously named “research” that goes into the dubiously named “research paper,” instructors liberate students generally. They liberate them not into the pointless neutrality of a survey of contemporary opinions, and certainly not into any fixed position; but rather into that confrontation with reality, especially the human reality, whose ethos Heraclitus formulated twenty-five centuries ago. First one must see, and then one must say, “how each thing truly is.”
The essay is central to the West. It is how the West thinks. Students should have the opportunity to be initiated into the essay as the practice and investigation of their own humanity.