The Death of the American Essay

I’ve long held the suspicion that the American essay has died. This week proved it.

Usually these things, such as the death of a cultural phenomenon, don’t have a precise time of death. But, this case is quite unique. Within the past week or so of the writing of this essay, AI technology for ChatGPT has surfaced sending the field of higher education into a tailspin. In short, ChatGPT is a well-polished bot that interfaces with the user similar to the help chat bot that tells you by not telling you much about why your internet isn’t working or why your package wasn’t delivered. However, this technology is much farther advanced than that. Given a prompt, ChatGPT can spit you back an essay undetectable by any plagiarism device worthy of an undergraduate college essay. Maybe even graduate level.

Occasionally, the ghosts of great essays from yesteryear come forth in fragmented glory. James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” or Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” cyclically pierce past the veil in disembodied grandeur, but no one’s quoting from Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in the middle of a Twitter battle. Likewise, the names like Susan Sontag, Gloria Anzaldùa, Joan Didion, John McPhee or even Ralph Waldo Emerson are names more likely to be found on an undergraduate humanity’s required course syllabus than to be cited in online dialogue or by a talking head on cable news.

As a writer I’m deeply aggrieved that there are people, even young adults, who don’t value the written word and the power of language. But, if we’re being honest, AI that generates an essay is simply the next logical step on our culture’s progression toward a metaverse-like reality. I don’t say this in the dystopian way many view conversations about the metaverse, but akin to Jean Baudrillard’s understanding of simulation and simulacrum, a computer that writes an essay for you was only a matter of time. Moreover, there’s not a single college or university with selective admissions that has a leg to stand on in this matter.

For starters, most top ranked colleges with admissions rates in the single digits use AI technology to filter out admissions packages because of the high similarity of college application essays. The essays submitted all follow a formula taught by private tutors, teachers at college prep high schools, and legislated by headmasters at private boarding schools. What’s the most objective way to select students out of an application pool in the tens of thousands? Create an AI program that looks at sentence structures, grammar, and certain buzzwords that denote diversity.

And when these students arrive at college attending a STEM powerhouse, they are subjected to freshman required courses that foist the last vestiges of a liberal arts education upon them. Students with desires to be pre-med, pre-law, engineering, or even the next great finance bro, are stuck sitting in a humanities class where they write essays. Why? Because it’s the American way. Whatever moral high ground a humanities professor, at the classroom level at least, would have against ChatGPT is nullified the moment they require students to produce their thoughts in a written form that’s then evaluated according to an algorithm called a grading rubric. Again, why? Because that suggests that there exists a perfect way to craft an essay in the first place.  

More interested in the next hookup and pledging a fraternity or sorority, writing an essay is the last thing on their mind and ChatGPT becomes easy workaround. At a school that demands all their time with extracurriculars, suffering through terrible teachers who exist in the only field that doesn’t allow termination because of performance review along with the general pressures of early adulthood that lead to mental health worries, finding a short cut that frees up their time doesn’t beg the question of the morality and ethics of plagiarism. Because in the wisdom only granted to 18-year-olds newly released from a world where they were just asking permission to use the bathroom in the middle of the day, what’s the difference between them writing the paper or having AI technology do it for them?

None.

The etymology of the word from which we get our present-day essay has its roots through old English and French with the word assay—to test the quality of a thing. Assayers set up shop in the old American west to provide chemical tests of gold and silver to prospectors. Romantically, the job of the essayist is to test the culture in which they are living. Henry Luce, founder of Time, Life and Sports Illustrated wrote an editorial essay that gave us the phrase “the American century” that buoyed the country after the close of the second World War. W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” published in The Souls of Black Folks gifted a nation with the cultural and philosophical concept of “double consciousness” that still has valence when discussing race in this country. The concept of “the end of history” was coined by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 essay, “The End of History and the Last Man,” in which he argued that the collapse of communism marked the end of ideological conflict and the beginning of a new era of global stability.*

But, perhaps to say the American essay is dead dead is to pronounce a premature autopsy over its existence. Any independent bookstore worth its salt still has a full section dedicated to essayists with their thoughts crammed into a trade paperback. It’s also clear the written word isn’t dead writ large either. Perhaps a better way to understand the death of the American essay is to grapple with the proliferation of written words. While it’s easy to go after advertising and marketing that flash words at us mercilessly in all types of digital forms, it all still comes back to the platform of social media that allows the written language to spring forth raw and uncut, edited by no one, seen by all.

In fact, everyone’s an essayist now. Twitter allows for 240 characters and seemingly endless threads. The portal for Facebook status updates is an insatiable gaping yaw that will consume as many characters as you can afford to feed it. Substack is just the latest in a long stream of popular blogging platforms that allow any and every one with words to publish. Whatever sadness I have about the American essay’s (un)timely demise isn’t rooted in the loss of undergraduate student’s skill set to write, nor is it wrapped up in public moralism’s frenzy about plagiarism, but it’s in the deeply personal realization that words don’t carry the weight they used to.

As far as I’m concerned, the last great American essay that was published was by Ta-Nehesi Coates in 2014 with “The Case for Reparations.” This was an essay that single-handedly resurrected the previously defunct idea of reparations for African Americans. In 2021 Evanston, Illinois became the first city to set up reparations for its Black residents and the state of California became the first state to create a reparations task force. In the same way that Luce and Du Bois contributed concepts to the American cultural imagination, so did Coates. Which, oddly enough, signals that the essay’s power to assay the culture has historically been found in the written word. Yet, it seems now the written word has been reduced to copy pasta that repeats itself in human form in social media comments, fine print on 12 page utility bills, CVS receipts, and “terms and conditions” that we all scroll past saying we’ve read.

For six years and counting, legacy institutions such as The Atlantic and the New Yorker along with dozens of other reputable media outlets published essays from their staff and contributing writers recording the atrocities of the Trump presidency and why holding him and the GOP accountable was needed for democracy to continue in America. And still, nothing’s happened. Essays used to mean something. Even Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which led to the banning of environmentally harmful pesticides in the 1960s started out as an essay. The late Anthony Bourdain got his big break just from publishing an essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” in 1999.

In the cyclical nature of language, we know that sometimes words die. There are many dead languages littered over the course of human existence. Words, even written ones, never to be revived by living tongues. We will never know what the Akkadians sounded like, nor will we know the accents of ancient Mesopotamian tribes living in the hill country, nor will we know what music was set to the hymns of ancient Israel. But the lasting effect of the written words existing thousands of years later offers us a small, but real, glimpse into what life was like. In the age of screens, where our digitally saved words exist in server rooms in faraway places most people have never laid eyes on, one can only wonder what future generations will be able to use to see the world as we saw it. Archiving these words rely on future innovators caring enough to maintain those technological connections. Whereas we can go see the tactile journal of an immigrant woman from the 19th century in a museum, will the daily vlogs of a college student on TikTok exist a century from now?

For all the work that words can do, it does seem as though the written word, especially in essay form, is in the sunset of its life. So let us not mourn its demise for faulty reasons of public morality, but rather acknowledge that, simply, the times have changed. Yet, mourn we must. We must mourn the loss of creativity. We must mourn the loss of an artist being able to shape and inform culture. We must mourn the loss of language. We mourn the loss of prophecy.

Nevertheless, we still write in the hopes that even if the land cannot bear our words, that there are still those—in the present or the future—who will receive them as a cherished gift. If the American essay is truly dead, let the words of its ashes be reborn in a new creative form. Forms of language may die, but words never will. For those who still write, keep writing.

*This sentence was helpfully generated by ChatGPT.

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