"Now I Know What I Don’t Know": The Ashbrook Statesmanship Thesis

Jeffrey Sikkenga

November 1, 2010

When Elena Kagan was nominated to the US Supreme Court, some of her critics raised questions about her undergraduate thesis at Princeton, which she wrote on the New York Socialist Party in the early twentieth century. What did it show about her political leanings? Could she do “equal justice under law,” as the Supreme Court must?

Others rushed to defend Justice Kagan. I particularly remember reading one supporter who talked about his own thesis experience at an Ivy League school. No one should read too much into anyone’s undergraduate thesis, he said, because “[c]ollege thesis writing is a haphazard, often random process.… You have a few weeks to find a topic. You settle on one based on a combination of what hasn’t been written, availability of sources, and, if you’re lucky, a passing interest in the subject. Then you need an argument. You don’t really know anything, though, so you end up overcompensating by making a stronger argument than the facts merit. If you aren’t overstating your case, you aren’t doing it right. You then have a semester to write a fifty-page essay—a task that would be difficult even without the added burden of classes, extracurriculars, and the intense hepatic demands of senior spring.” Maybe that’s an okay defense of Justice Kagan (if she needed one), but it’s a sad commentary on undergraduate theses, even in the Ivy League.

How different is the typical Ashbrook Scholar’s thesis experience. It isn’t a rushed, “haphazard,” and overwrought affair thrown together in a few weeks. In fact, at its best an Ashbrook Statesmanship thesis is one of the most sustained and intense intellectual and moral endeavors a student will ever undertake.

This is because of what an Ashbrook thesis is—and is not.

Often colleagues from other departments or other universities sit on an Ashbrook Scholar’s thesis committee, which is made up of a supervisor, a second reader, and an outside reader. These faculty members have written dissertations themselves and have expectations about what an undergraduate thesis is. But they are often surprised at the character of an Ashbrook thesis—at how liberal it is. Not in the partisan political sense, but in being so clearly guided by the idea of a liberal education, the education of a free person who can pursue the truth for himself. This is not what they are expecting.

They expect that the theses will be scholarly in the technical, academic sense of starting from the scholarly literature. But they aren’t. They do not begin from what scholars say; they start from the primary sources or great texts that a student wants to investigate—from the things themselves. If an Ashbrook Scholar is doing a thesis on Woodrow Wilson, for example, we tell him not to start from scholarly books and articles on Wilson but from Wilson’s own speeches and writings. Understand someone as he understood himself, not as some scholar tells you to understand him. That’s the foundation of true history, of studying the past on its own terms and telling the story in all of its original colors and flavors. It is the only way that we can really learn from the past in the most important sense—in the sense of understanding history’s answers to the most pressing questions that face every human being and society, regardless of when they live. It is how we transcend the limited perspective of our own time and place.

Yet Ashbrook theses are not necessarily original. In fact, students are often taken aback when they are told that they should not strive to discover or say something that no one else has said before. If they do make original discoveries, that’s fine. But the most important thing is for the thesis to be original to the student. If someone wants to write about Plato’s understanding of justice in the Republic, it does not matter that people have been writing on the subject for almost 2500 years already. What matters is that the student has not yet studied it as deeply as he needs to. The thesis is, after all, for the benefit of the student, not for scholars in the discipline. That too is surprising for many faculty members, who are so used to looking for something new under the sun.

It’s also surprising that while these are statesmanship theses, they are not limited to a specific discipline like history or political science. Of course, Ashbrook Scholars are interested in public affairs and so most theses are about great political or historic texts, thinkers, or events. But an Ashbrook thesis can be in any field that engages the student: I’ve seen very good theses in abstract algebra, the art of the French Revolution, the novels of Ralph Ellison, and the musical structure of church hymns. These too are statesmanship theses if we understand statesmanship in its broadest and truest sense: the cultivation and use of practical wisdom, which means knowing something of what is true and good and beautiful, and applying that knowledge to an important problem. That can be done in many disciplines; the knowledge of what is true and good and beautiful can be found anywhere goodness and beauty are found, whether in numbers, painting, poetry, or music. And, of course, in history and politics.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of an Ashbrook thesis is the unexpected way that the thesis completes an Ashbrook Scholar’s education. It is not the students’ chance to write down everything they have learned over the course of four years, or to accumulate a mass of new information on top of what they already know. Instead, the Scholar uses all he has learned to deepen his understanding of some particular problem worth investigating. In the process the student will inevitably learn many new facts. But his most important acquisition is a many-layered insight into a topic worth deep exploration.

The Ashbrook thesis is so surprising because it is, quite simply, not how things are usually done in colleges today. It’s not an artificial exercise imposed on a student who doesn’t “really know anything” but has to write something “scholarly” that he thinks will please his professors. No, it is the student’s opportunity to dig as deeply as he can into a question that concerns him as a human being and a citizen. The question itself does not even have to be directed at wisdom; it could be about square roots or the roots of trees. But the process needs to make him more aware of what it means to think deeply about an important question—in other words, it needs to make him a little wiser.

The surprising character of the Ashbrook thesis is reflected in how the students go about writing it. It’s not an “often random process” that starts in the spring of the student’s senior year. In fact, the Ashbrook PrincipleScholars’ thesis preparation begins the moment they arrive at AU for their freshman orientation. In that first weekend they have several seminars on a great book that they have been asked to read over the summer and write an interpretation of. This year the book was Winston Churchill’s autobiography, My Early Life. Through conversation about these books and about writing, the new Ashbrook Scholars begin to raise such questions as “What is education?” and “What is justice?” They start to examine the answers given by a statesman like Churchill. This is exactly what they will be doing in their theses.

They start early because it takes a lot of reading and thinking before you can write a thesis. You must first find a good question. This is the hardest thing about the thesis intellectually. A student can’t know what question he is going to tackle until he knows that certain things are questions. And we are often unaware of the questions around us. One Ashbrook Scholar, for example, wrote a fine thesis on a topic that at the beginning of his college career he would never have considered: the political thought of John C. Calhoun. This pro-slavery Senator and Vice President argued before the Civil War that the Declaration of Independence taught “self-evident lies” when it said that “all men are created equal.” Today we take equality for granted; Calhoun’s position offends us. But that doesn’t mean that questions about equality do not persist; we’ve simply forgotten what they are. For example, what do we mean by equality? How are all people “created equal”? Equal in what? Why are all people equal in that way? What are the political implications of such equality? This student started thinking about those questions several years before he began to write his thesis when he, like almost all Ashbrook Scholars, took a course in American political thought and confronted Calhoun and his arguments. It is in classes like these that our Scholars begin to learn what important questions look like and how you approach them.

This early encounter with real questions points to the most important prerequisite for writing a thesis: being perplexed. This experience often troubles students morally. It can seem wrong to be perplexed. You can see the student thinking: “Shouldn’t I have the most important questions settled?” But if a question is truly a question, then you don’t actually know the answer. Of course, a student starts off with opinions about the right answer. We all have opinions. What the Scholars learn, however, is that their opinions might not be right, or at least that they don’t always know why they are right—in other words, that they do not know. Perplexity—or wonder—results. It’s not always the most pleasant experience; we like to have the answers. But doing the thesis involves wrestling with a problem that you haven’t solved.

However, Ashbrook Scholars are never left simply perplexed. They have guides to help them along the way. First and foremost, they are encouraged to talk with professors and fellow students about the questions that have come to them—not so that someone else will give them the answer, but so that they can test whether their question really is a question and whether it really is worth pursuing.

They also have a faculty advisor, who they select in their junior year after they’ve found a topic. The advisor does not have to be someone in a particular department at Ashland University. It can be any qualified person from anywhere, and some of the best Ashbrook theses have had advisors from other universities. The advisor needs to know something about the question, of course, but the most important thing is that he or she be someone with whom the student can have a sustained conversation. This is necessary because, as I can say from experience, thesis advising is intense. Students don’t just settle their topic, meet with you once at the beginning of their senior year, and then drop off their thesis eight months later. We meet every week or every other week for their entire senior year, with the student constantly writing and re-writing. Advisors don’t tell the student what to think; they draw the student out and along the path of his question. They propose possibilities for him to consider as he pursues the answers for himself.

Finally, once a student submits his thesis at the end of his last semester, he must defend it publicly in front of his thesis committee and anyone else who wants to be there, including faculty members, fellow students, and even his family. Students usually fret over the facts and figures of their defense, but they rarely need to. They’ve worked on their thesis for the better part of a year, and they usually know it inside and out. Still, they are right to take it seriously because the defense really is a defense, not just a presentation. Students speak for about twenty minutes and then take questions for up to an hour from the audience, starting with their thesis committee. The questions are not hostile, but they are probing. Above all, we want to see the student think more deeply about his topic out loud. If he can do that, he has the makings of someone who can think for himself.

After a defense by one of my advisees, I talked with her about her Ashbrook thesis experience. I could see from her defense that she didn’t just know more; she was a changed person. A good student before, now she was an excellent one. Her opinions had deepened. Her habits of mind had strengthened. Her thinking had sharpened. But when I asked her what was the most important thing she had learned, she surprised me: “Now I know what I don’t know,” she said. How wonderful—and how wise.

She didn’t throw something together in a few weeks and end up “overcompensating by making a stronger argument than the facts merit.” She labored long and hard and thoughtfully—and finished with a glimpse of some part of the truth about the world, or at least with an understanding of how important it is to get such a glimpse. She completed the Ashbrook program not only knowing what she didn’t know, but also what she did. She now knew how hard—and thrilling—it is to pursue the great questions that confront every human being. It’s an ennobling experience for any citizen. If only more of us—even future Supreme Court justices—enjoyed it.

Jeffrey Sikkenga is a fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.