Throughout the development of the educational system, academic writing gained on significance. Students are asked to write more essays than ever in traveling also, but the circumstances impose a shift in style, approach, and topics.
The form of the essay paper remains intact since the 16th century, when the French writer Michel de Montaigne developed the 5-paragraph essay structure. This so-called hamburger essay was infiltrated in the British educational system in the form of theme writing – a paper based on specific instructions for the formulation of an argument. The 19th century was characterized by rigid forms and strict teaching methods, which resulted in standardized assessment methods.
During the 20th century, teachers in Germany started using the essay assignments as tools for grading students on their understanding of a particular topic. This method of assessment was quickly infused into the standardized testing system across the Western world, and it is still being used today for evaluating students’ knowledge and writing skills.
The form of the five-paragraph essay remained more or less intact, but there is one aspect that is significantly different: the topics.
How Essay Topics Changed Through Time
Today’s topics are longer and complex, but more precise
When we take a look at the titles of some of the best essays ever written, we see brief titles that give you only a hint of the complex, layered content that follows. George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is a loud rebellion against imperialism, but the author did not have an ambition to capture that vibe in the title. On the contrary, the title can be quite misleading and the reader doesn’t know what the point is before he starts reading the actual essay.
Today’s topics are much more precise, especially when we take the educational system into consideration. Sometimes teachers indicate the theme and allow the students to come up with their own topics, but they still instruct the class to grasp the point of the paper through the title itself. For example, when the subject is the cyber era, students are expected to provide a paper with a very specific title, such as Cyberwarfare – The Third World War in the Era of Globalization. The reader immediately understands that the thesis statement and the main arguments will be related to cyber attacks on governmental level.
The essay writing service, Essayzwriting.com reports increased complexity in the requirements set by professors. The 2015-2016 essay prompts published at The Common Application website are lengthy and complex in structure. This is one of the prompts students can work with: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Then, the prompt is further explained: the students should recount an incident or time of failure and explain what he/she learned from the experience. This kind of topic is very limiting. It does not leave the student with much flexibility, since he/she has to respond to particular expectations.
The prompts for 2012-13 were slightly less elaborate. Here is an example- Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence. In this case, the student had some freedom to express himself. It seems like essay writers are losing that opportunity as the educational system evolves.
Education and culture are still popular, but gender issues are not getting attention
In 2011, Mrunal.org published an analysis on essay topic trends for UPSC civil service IAS exam over 19 years (from 1993 to 2011). This is a nationwide competitive examination in India for recruitment to different Civil Services of the Government of India, but the trends reflect the worldwide situation regarding essay topics. Polity was the most common theme throughout the years, followed by culture, philosophy, and global. Topics related to women were given with the lowest frequency.
In the early 90s, the candidates were able to choose from 6-8 topics, but the suggestions have been gradually reduced over the years. Here are some of the topics from the category policy during the early 90s:
My vision of India in 2001 a.d. – 1993
Whither Indian democracy? – 1995
Politics, bureaucracy and business – fatal triangle – 1994
Over the years, the topics gained on complexity and lost on flexibility. Here are the two topics from the theme polity in 2011:
Creation of smaller states and the consequent administrative, economic and developmental implication
In the Indian context, both human intelligence and technical intelligence are crucial in combating terrorism
It seems like today, the most popular topics guide the writer in a certain direction that leaves no space for digressions.
Why Are the Topics More Complex?
Due to the access to an unlimited number of online resources and tools that make the paper writing process easier, academic writing is less academic than ever. The readers expect clear tone and straightforward arguments supported by facts. The topics, on the other hand, are getting more complex than ever.
One of the reasons why professors assign lengthy, specific topics is to make the job a bit more difficult for the students. If they assign a common theme like ‘World War 2’ and expect students to come up with their own angle, they will receive many plagiarized papers. When students can easily obtain the needed materials online, most of them do not conduct an in-depth research and fail to include their own opinions in the papers.
That’s why professors are trying to think of topics that cannot be specifically answered by Google. In the digital age, the most popular essay topics always guide the student towards in a specific direction that leaves less space for plagiarism and paraphrasing.