On a flight home from grading hundreds of the 280,000 five-paragraph essays submitted for the Advanced Placement Test in English language and composition in 2007, an exhausted Edward M. White realized he’d had enough. He wrote a response—a five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay. Here’s the fourth paragraph:
The last reason to write this way is the most important. Once you have it down, you can use it for practically anything. Does God exist? Well you can say yes and give three reasons, or no and give three different reasons. It doesn’t really matter. You’re sure to get a good grade whatever you pick to put into the formula. And that’s the real reason for education, to get those good grades without thinking too much and using up too much time.
Over at Aeon, David Labaree explores the “five-paragraph fetish” and how it came to be. “As so often happens in subjects that are taught in school,” he writes, “the template designed as a means toward attaining some important end turns into an end in itself. As a consequence, form trumps meaning.” Which means content and style are secondary—if not entirely unnecessary.