Date of this Version
Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring/Summer 2017, Volume 18. Number 1.
The five-paragraph essay is a hard genre to love. Its inverted-triangle intro has enlightened us with too many “dawns” of some monolithic “man.” It reduces arguments, which tend to be rather subtle creatures, to the confines of a single-sentence thesis. It confects arguments in bland triplicate structure, as if any claim could be made more palatable by a perfectly bland Neapolitan blend. And it encourages seeing conclusions as a venue for gratuitous repetitions that insult the reader’s intelligence and memory alike. Beyond sponsoring these infelicities, the five-paragraph model, as Kimberly Hill Campbell notes in a recent issue of Educational Leadership, seems useless in the college classroom, and even in high school contexts it hampers rather than inspires the kinds of rich analytical and organizational thinking a teacher would hope to inspire. Its prescriptive and arbitrary rules, in short, obscure both the difficulties and pleasures of more earnestly engaged writing.
Yet there is much to love about the five-paragraph essay. It teaches students that any paper is dead without a hook; that paragraphs are not just containers of information but tools that guide the reader’s attention; that arguments require structure; that claims demand evidence. The five-paragraph essay, in the end, is a kind of socialization into the world of academic writing. One must learn to play nice before one is able to play well. The lessons afforded by this preeminent pedagogical exercise of the high school years, however, are not limited to the compositional or organizational task at hand. Indeed, the most powerful lesson this form can teach relates to genre: the five-paragraph essay is a stubborn reminder that our expressive and argumentative efforts are often filtered through a set of generic expectations that can appear arbitrary and unduly constraining.