POSTED RESPONSE TO A COLUMN BY JOHN MULLAN IN THE GUARDIAN
John Mullan makes a very weak argument here, trying to bolster it by dropping the names of many essayists and toying with the notion of peculiarities in British academics' attitudes towards essays.
It is actually quite fatuous to pooh-pooh essay writing while showing off your knowledge of its past greats.
It's a form of saying, 'Look, I know what I'm talking about here, so pay attention.' A cheap rhetorical trick if ever there was one.
It really does not matter whether you use the term 'essay' or 'paper' or 'term paper' or any other, what matters is a university student's ability to organize ideas and write them in a clear and interesting way.
The fact is that this kind of writing represents a set of skills likely to remain important until machines take over as the world's next dominant species.
I do not know the precise standard of undergraduate writing in Britain, but from the many references I see, it appears very much on its way down.
I can only assure British readers that the bottom is still a long way down, using the standard at American post-secondary institutions. Readers would be stunned by the poor writing skills now widely displayed in America.
Of course there is still good writing and of course there are institutions that still have standards. America over the last half century has developed a bizarre system in which almost anyone can get a BA, but not all BAs are equal.
It's just a new form of the old snobbish exclusivity with an elaborate show of democratic values in the world of academics.
Everyone's kid gets to go to 'college' even though many of the degrees are worthless and qualify you only for jobs that not many years ago were filled by people graduating high school. Those going to Harvard or the University of Chicago still have a value that cannot be touched by graduates of Liberty U.
In effect, young people today in America pay for what high school should have done for them, and that is passing the basic entrance requirement for entry into decent employment.
Of course, in an ever more technical and information-intense world, people must improve their education. What is needed are purely technical and polytechnical schools, closely associated with the needs of industry. But the American system only does that to a limited extent.
After all, roughly the same proportions of the population are bright or dull as before. You do not change that with grade inflation and near-universal access to university.
You just end up changing the meaning of what it is to graduate and you devalue the coin of the academic world by having people who cannot write and who do not have a great many other traditional academic skills.