The Essay Heritages and Hindrances

A School of Education seminar presented on February 11th, 2015 by  Dr Adrian Jones OAM

Why are history essays so po-faced? Assessments in senior-secondary and tertiary studies of history routinely set students to research and write something restrained and constrained. Standard training in the writing of history essays mostly summons students to try to interest readers in some past something, having to do so in especially sober, grounded and disinterested ways. Academe even depends on notions of “argument” obsolete in everyday language. This paper about the history of the history essay explores how the essay came to occupy its pivotal role educating trained historians, and the consequences of its continuing to play that role. As we face challenges of mass higher education, my focus is on how the honed history essay’s unusual edu-culture insisting on disinterested forays into a thing of interest erects forms of academic power that may now narrow pathways to student self-expression. Essays emerged, evolved and thrived in four genteel Augustan-patrician worlds: in Imperial Rome, in the Northern Renaissance, in Enlightenment-era coffeehouses and salons, and, for the last century and half, on serried wobbly tables in public examinations. I suggest he genteel equanimity of the history essay – whenever it is taken as a disciplinary given – may now rebuff other immersive possibilities to perform learning in a mass-participation era of higher education. To continue to privilege – untutored – written assessment tasks in a genre as narrow and unusual as the history essay is to choke the historical imagination of current students, shackling them to past patrician predilections. If the history essay is still to survive among the many possible new forms and e-platforms of student expression, academic historians and history educators, like the Sophists and Scholastics of yore, must suppress some of their traditional concentration on content and argument to also teach the rhetorics of the unusual essay genre that they (and I) are perverse enough still to cherish.



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