Essays – love them or hate them, anyone who has gone through the British education system knows about them. The internet is awash with tips and tricks for learning a good essay, and it sometimes feels (especially in the Humanities) that there is no more important skill. But do we ever stop to think about where the essay comes from?
The term ‘essay’ was coined by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). A member of the French nobility, Montaigne famously retreated into a tower at his chateau after the death of his father and began to dedicate his time to writing short works on just about every topic you can imagine – cannibals, thumbs, solitude, why fathers love their children, and much else besides. Montaigne’s writings, deeply confessional in tone, caused a literary sensation when the first two books were published in 1580 with the title ‘Essais‘. The word ‘essai’ (or ‘essay’) for Montaigne, similar to ‘assay’ in English today, had a meaning closer to ‘an attempt’. Ironically, Montaigne’s essays share little in common with the secondary school student’s essay today: being explicitly subjective and prone to unfocused digressions.
Montaigne’s term caught on quickly regardless – especially amongst British philosophers. Francis Bacon was one of the earliest to lift Montaigne’s approach, with his ‘Essays’ being published in 1597. There then followed over the next few hundred years a recurring love affair between British intellectuals and the essay format – notable examples including John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and David Hume’s Essays Moral and Political (1741). The culmination of this trend, and a crucial moment in the identification of essay-writing with formal education, came when the University of Cambridge – where assessment had largely been verbal – introduced the unseen written examination in this style in 1791.
Today, the essay undeniably rules the roost when it comes to our modern education system’s preferred mode of assessment. And yet, there is not as much consensus with regards to the essay as you might think. Although essays remain the norm in the form of traditional exams, the recent turn away from coursework for GCSEs and A-level under the current UK Government has nonetheless decreased the number of long-form, independent essays students have to produce. There are also those academics who question the suitability of the essay as such a universal assessment form from numerous perspectives. For example, some say it fails to prepare you for the world of work, others that it benefits certain forms of students.
Whatever the disputes though, it seems the essay is here to stay – for now.
Andrew Hyams is a communications and digital consultant from London with a background in politics and campaigning, having worked for the UK, Australian and New Zealand Labour parties. He studied History and Philosophy at the University of Sussex and UCL. You can get in touch with him on firstname.lastname@example.org