It occurred to me that no one really taught me how to write, what I did learn as a student was what to write, not how to write, substance and actual content over mere external form to satisfy examiners, and to that end, I realise how important my self-study of philosophy was in teaching me what to write.
I often find arts and humanities students defending their own majors and concentration to be quite frankly distastefully egotistical in its shameless self-praise and self-justification. But in this case, since my study of philosophy did result in improvement in empirical results in terms of how I did for my ‘A’ levels, I guess an account of the role philosophy played in this is not out of order. So enjoy this defense of philosophy from me, it would be a rare event.
To be honest, my English is actually quite bad, never in my life as a student have I ever got an A for English (except at A levels for GP, but that later). I never learnt anything like grammar, sentence construction, paragraphing or any of the standard forms and techniques which seem so prevalent amongst students today. However, and paradoxically, I’ve often done well in the humanities, geography, history, etc. When my idiotic secondary school didn’t offer history, I asked to take it myself and with self-study, I managed to get an A for it.
I guess in retrospect, I realise that I need to learn actual content, not mere form. I cannot discuss things in abstraction, out of the thin air as it were, which was what most English essay writing required. I need concrete events and concrete relations and linkages to other events, structures provided by the subject matter and content itself, just as the historical events structures itself or geographical phenomena structures itself.
When I went to JC, I failed my promo GP and was sent to this GP class for lower end students. Fortunately I had a very good teacher there who immediately realised my problem. She told me that my essays are largely rambling. I go on and on and on about some point in a confused and disjointed fashion, but yet miraculously, amongst the muck of confusion, I would suddenly make a brilliant point or give a brilliant insight, before collapsing once more into a form of postmodern stream of consciousness.
Her solution was not to teach me paragraphing or essay structuring or point expansion techniques or whatever, she simply told me, to spend five to ten minutes before starting to write out an essay plan and iron out my own thoughts. In retrospect, I guess no matter how “rational” or “objective” or “consistent” I sound on print or on screen, the external is actually the means by which I order the internal chaos. I’m actually confused most of the time, my thoughts leap from one end to another in some form of chaotic postmodern stream of consciousness, and the only way I could bring order to my thoughts is to force it down on static print where it can’t jump all over the place. But yet because I obsessively to the point of madness keep turning the idea over and over and over again from a thousand zillion angles, even from the most absurd of perspective, when sometimes, like a prophetic inspiration, suddenly an idea clicks with another idea and I get a sort of insight into something.
The other thing which occurred simultaneously to this was my picking up philosophy by myself. We didn’t have KI back then, so no one offered philosophy. But I picked up philosophy as a result of wanting to be Christian and seeking reasons for my faith, and where else does one turn to for global rationalism then philosophy? I remember picking up this delightful little philosophy textbook at the Bedok library which gave a broad introduction to Western philosophy. It taught the major Western canon from Plato to Aristotle, etc, but oddly enough, it skipped the entire medieval segment, leaping straight to Descartes and modern philosophy. It also had topical introductions like metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, ethics, as well as the representative thinkers of the various schools, etc.
The study of philosophy was the decisive break which I needed for essay writing because philosophy teaches the structures of reality and thought itself, the structure of ethics, knowledge, reason, even unto the cosmos, and this was what I needed to understand how to approach the GP generic topics. Essay writing techniques merely provides an artificial structuring of mere words, not thoughts, tricks of presentation to satisfy an examiner, but I needed something to satisfy my own mind, not just some exam format. And philosophy was precisely that study which provided the contents for structuring and understanding these global issues.
Thus, a simple practice of simply planning my essay before writing it as a means of externalising my thoughts onto orderly print, and armed with the structures of reality and knowledge itself provided by philosophy, I guess for the first time I knew how to approach a GP essay and for my ‘A’ levels, I got my only A for GP in my entire schooling career at that point. (I still sort of vaguely remember the essay question, something to do with the reliability of statistics, thank you David Hume! :D)
So if you want train people on essay writing and the art of letters, have nothing to do with examination tricks and other artificial essay writing “techniques”…
Just teach them philosophy. For ultimately, the essay is not for itself, not a mere pleasing aesthetic art piece for the pleasure of examiners, but it is the struggle of the subject to grasp reality in its true substance and content, through the thoughts, concepts and words, intricately bound to those very realities, inherited from thinkers past who themselves have struggled with it…