The usual attacks on ye olde 5-paragraph essay are a bit like attacks on the sonnet. Are formal constraints really the problem? After all, the vast majority of sonnets ever written—the ones that have mercifully made their way into Time’s recycling bin—were undoubtedly very bad pieces of writing. Instead of criticizing the 5-paragraph essay, shouldn’t we give our attention to the writers’ and teachers’ lack of imagination and art?
Even if we consider the 5-paragraph essay as a ‘mere exercise’, is that so bad? Musicians practice scales and chord changes. Cooks begin by following recipes. The 5-paragraph essay similarly teaches fundamental elements of good writing: beginning, middle, and end; stating a thesis; catching the reader’s interest; organizing one’s ideas; developing them with examples, illustrations, and explanation; constructing a coherent argument; concluding in a way that is both artful and interesting. Along the way, the student practices choosing the right word, crafting an effective sentence, employing rhythm and variety, and so on.
At a certain point in European intellectual history Aristotle became the whipping boy for the new philosophers, who for the most part had never read Aristotle but only the medieval Scholastic distortions of Aristotle. In the same way, I suspect that most attacks on the 5-paragraph essay are misdirected. The real problem is not five paragraphs, but bad teaching.