The History of the Form Revisited

I mentioned in a previous post an article which attributed the origins of the five-paragraph essay to the early 20th century in Germany. Unfortunately, this snippet was the only glimmer of knowledge I could acquire for some time. After searching vainly for weeks for more about the history of the form, I was today finally gratified when I stumbled across an article called “The Five Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing”, by Matthew J. Nunes.

This article traces the commonly perceived origins of the form,  describing its basis in the realm of current-traditionalism, which had its day between 1870-1920. While the article is actually questioning the origins of the form in this period, it does concede the solid placement of the form within the period which I think is worth describing here.

While the sophisticated and intelligent readers of this blog may be familiar with current-traditionalism, I myself was not. Nunes describes the main features of current-traditionalism  “as being an emphasis on product over process” (297), as well as a great emphasis on rules and results. As Nunes says, “[i]nvention, in current-traditionalism, is essentially disregarded in favor of rule-based arrangement” (299).

This certainly seems to describe how we use the five-paragraph essay today; as a formula into which any argument can be implemented and the result satisfactory. But, as Nunes so eloquently puts it, “the fact that the five-paragraph essay is an important current-traditional form does not mean that it originated in current-traditionalism” (297).

While Nunes is actually disputing the claims of origin in current-traditionalism, he agrees with many points that are an interesting insight into the history of the form. He mentions how textbooks from the current-traditional period often contained “how-to” sections for writing paragraphs and longer essays that ended up much like our five-paragraph form today.

What Nunes is really suggesting is that the form came from the development of Theme writing, in the same period as that of the current-traditional. A similarly structured form of writing, it included “detailed directions and assignments” (301).  The title is relatively self-explanatory; it indicates a theme on which students are supposed to write and create an argument. This format is common today in written examinations (301). These themes included directions for an introduction, body paragraphs, and a carefully summarized conclusion. But while Theme writing was popular and widely used in the current-traditional period, it was in use even before the Civil War in America (304). The same standards were in use  in Great Britain, as their educational system continued to “dominate American language instruction long after she had ceased to dominate America politically” (Armstrong 71, qtd. Nunes 305).

Nunes notes the more rigidly structured evolution of theme writing from Montaigne’s original attempt at the essay. Much as they are used today, theme writing was used to teach students the basics of essay writing before they moved on to more complex discussions (306). He goes on to explore theme writing throughout history, noting references to the practice by John Locke, and others in the 17th century ( 308), with much of the strength of the form being created even earlier, in the 16th century.

As a nice sum up, Nunes states that, in reference to the five paragraph essay that pervades and plagues our educational institutions “its history can inform our understanding of why it persists” (309). In this, Nunes also addresses my frustration in the inability to find scholarship addressing the beginnings of the five paragraph form. There is little that tells us how it came to be, and instead of questioning this invisibility, we simply take it as a symbol of its undisputed supremacy.

This article offers a neatly placed glimpse into the possible origins of the form that is so cemented into our educational system. With its history, we are offered the opportunity to place the form in our own context, and make the invisible seen, bringing understanding to our practices and how we may change them.



Work Cited

Nunes, Matthew J. “The Five-Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing.” Rhetoric Review 32.3 (2013): 295–313. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web. 4 July 2013.


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