The Essay Conundrum

As a foreword, it is necessary to say that this post is written by an Indonesian. Thus, the following paragraphs will contain what is most likely relevant only to Indonesians and those who are interested in the south-eastern country’s educational system -and, optimistically speaking, those whose countries’ scholastic structures are plagued with similar issues. With that out of the way, let us begin a short discussion regarding the assessment of the quality of essays written by Indonesian pupils, from the university-level and so on.

Mainstream Indonesian schools participate in the standardized national exam with the moniker of “UN.” Any Indonesian adolescent willing to obtain a degree that is considered acceptable by their country’s universities would have to one day take this test -the UN is Indonesia’s equivalent of the US’s SATs. Though there have been times where the test’s aesthetics were slightly altered, they always consist of multiple choice questions. There is a problem with the UN’s simplistic attempt of measuring the populace’s intelligence however: Students do not have to think critically of their answers, and need only to memorize the materials presented in their nationally-regulated textbooks.

Intelligence should never be considered as a mere storing of oft unhelpful scraps of information. A smart man may be able to comprehend the formulas and theories presented in his physics textbook, but a true intellectual would be able to create new stipulations based on preexisting data. Take for instance Isaac Newton’s formation of differential calculus, which is a whole new toolkit for the mathematical field, granting natural philosophers the means to better understand gravity and the motion of objects. What I am trying to say is that the title “smart” should not be given to fact memorizers, rather to those who are able to add into whatever scientific, or non-scientific field the individual is willing to invest in.

At this point, the solution to the UN conundrum seems obvious. There are few more effective ways to glimpse and bring into light the thought process of a person, other than by compelling him to write. Writing is a robust expression of an individual’s thoughts, of the ideas that randomly springs about in his mind, and how he conveys these abstractions both to himself and unto others. Academic essays will always be a better alternative, for educating and measuring a person’s intellect, to the multiple choice questions currently forced on Indonesian students. Although essays might now seem like a cure-all, there are of course issues about the system that still need to be addressed.

Essays may accurately portray the goings-on of a person’s cranium. However, each and everyone of us harbor different talents from our varying genes, and from the environments we are partially molded by. Some could be amazing speakers but horrible writers. Others could perhaps compose paragraphs that when read feel more whimsical than academic. Even with its potential to represent the innermost ideas of a person, the essay fails to be the much needed representation of literary-impaired minds.

Yet what I’ve laid out above is not the issue with essays. Another problem arises when a person is tasked to judge whether an essay is excellent, abysmal, or mediocre. How does one -and only one- objectively judge the quality of an essay? I personally think that the writings of Marx, Nietzche, and a few other worshipped philosophers are the mumblings of madmen. Yet obviously there are many who would stone me to the point where my pores excrete blood in place of sweat for my heretical thought.

Objectivity is the penultimate reason for debating the integrity of academic papers. For instance, on the comments section of, a commenter once conducted a very easy-to-do experiment. In his high-school days, the Reddit commenter wrote various essays for his unspecified classes. Among the many teachers he wrote for, one stood out in particular due to his compulsion for handing out relatively low scores. The commenter thought that his papers were being marked too harshly, and that he deserved to get better marks for his work. A few years later, during his university days, he turned in one of his high-school papers for a class project. Surprisingly enough, his paper was granted an A-, whereas previously it was only worth a passing C.

Was it the high-school teacher, or was it the university professor who was correct in assessing the quality of the commenter’s paper? This is a question with enough implications to warrant a revamping of the judging process of essays.

Each teacher, lecturer, professor, is a human being with his own preferences, opinions, beliefs, and so on. No matter how much a person tries to keep his personal side from interfering with his work, it is an impossibility to detach your humanity from, well, the human that is you. Therefore, even if it is only on a marginal level, your persona and your current state of mind will affect how you perceive the value of the text presented to you; be it your preference for certain ideas, sentence structures, analogies, et cetera. When a man is given the power to place value according to his own whims, objectivity becomes an illusion tailored for the naive. As the Reddit commenter has brilliantly demonstrated, a paper might be a sparkling A to one person, but a whimpering C to another.

How should essays be handled, so that objectivity could be brought closer to reality? An Indonesian campus by the name of Bina Nusantara offers one potential solution: An excellent essay must be worthy enough to be published in a newspaper or a magazine, or popular enough on a student’s personal blog to gather a previously agreed upon number of supportive commenters. I find this solution to be quite compelling simply because the judging process is handled by more than just one person. Then again, it is a bit too hopeful to expect about sixty students to all be capable of producing news-worthy material. Again, everybody’s writing skills and styles are wildly different.

Perhaps since grades largely affect a student’s future career path, -when a person has no previous professional achievement or experience, his GPA and speaking skills are all the weapons he has in a job interview- a more feasible fix is thus in order. Rather than forcing professional-level standards on inexperienced students, an implementation of more than one campus ordered judge should be efficient enough.

Grading essays is clearly a chore. An educator has to spend hours and hours poring through mostly bland pieces of text, whilst very rarely catching sight of a thought-provoking paper. Plus, not everyone has the kind of patience essay-demanding professors do. However, this weight should not dissuade students from demanding more than one person to judge the quality of his work. Educators must, after all, follow the noble goal of encouraging the development of young minds and accurately keeping track of such growth. It is the responsibility of teachers, and the right of students, to demand a fairer system; one where value is placed not by one, single beholder, but by many whose standards of quality are variable enough to induce multiple, and contradictory perspectives. A good or bad grade needs to be based on the consensus of multiple individuals, thereby somewhat diminishing the effects of subjectivity, and creating a more “accurate” measuring setup.

The solution I offer today is not guaranteed to be without holes. There is always room for improvement, and maybe a cleverer person than I could come up with a much more useful answer for the essay conundrum. But I firmly believe that as long as quality is deemed by only one person, the possibility that brilliance could be overlooked, and idiocy worshipped, is far greater than when multiple voices are brought into the fray. A prerequisite for objectivity is the introduction of clashing viewpoints, and that is only possible when we allow more than just one person to have an effective say in things.


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