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Throughout History …

Why is it that students love to start essays with phrases like “Throughout history …” or “From the beginning of history …”? Last week I gave a lesson on introductions where students had to guess which of the sentences I’d put up should go in the introduction of an essay, which should go in the body, and which should not go in the essay at all. One sentence was “From the beginning of history, people have always played games” (this was a hypothetical essay about games, by the way). At least half the students wanted to put this in the introduction and looked vaguely hurt when I told them that it shouldn’t go anywhere, in any essay because it is not a good idea in academic writing to inform the reader of the blatantly obvious. Unless you are some radical, ground-breaking historian, if what you are saying is true for the whole of history, it’s something we already know. After all, we’ve had the whole of history to get used to the idea.

A few days later, I had them in the lab writing the introduction of their essay, and while wandering round I prevented a handful of students from inserting the whole of history into their introductions (note that I have no gripe with qualified historical statements like “since the industrial revolution” or “throughout the twentieth century”). Now I am reading the drafts they produced and I am still finding sentences like “Throughout history, people have played many games.” Were these students asleep in the lesson? Did I fail to get the point across? Is there some lure of history that they simply find irresistible? Or, as I suspect, is this another of those cliches that are actually taught ? I haven’t yet seen this in a writing textbook, but it is so bad that it would not surprise me if I did.

Note: I was going to finish with a witty comment about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it, but then I found out that this is not what George Santayana actually said.

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