During my fourth and final incarnation as a grad student, I took an excellent seminar on T.S. Eliot (1888-1965).
One of our assignments was to write a certain number of polite essays on whatever aspects of Eliot's work caught our fancy. Sadly, this project had the effect of exacerbating the short but definitive generation gap between me and the other students -- baby-boomers among whom I, as a 30-something married woman with children, stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. It didn't help when the professor said: "Frances seems to be the only student who knows what a polite essay is."
Indeed, students who had been educated predominantly by G.I.-Bill-era instructors seemed unable to step back and view their subject matter with the detachment necessary to form their own opinions, project arguments upon these opinions, and then gracefully discard any statements that turned out to be untenable. These students wanted to be right, and they wanted clear directions for the tasks that would let them demonstrate their rightness.
A few days ago, I realized that I was devoting this blog to polite essays, and I must admit to being proud of keeping a tradition alive.
So what is a polite essay? It's leisurely and non-hortatory in tone, short but seemingly complete, flirting with erudition yet not pedantic. Other than that, it's one of those things about which (like jazz), "If you have to ask, you ain't ever gonna know!"