King’s Survey: Essaying

In which we see a class struggle with a question, just as Mr. K. hopes, even as he tries to give them paths out of the woods.

Statement of Interest
“Essay” is a verb.

—I’m sorry, Mr. K, but that is a ridiculous essay question.

And good morning to you, Emily.

—I mean, seriously. “What was the Civil War?” How are we supposed to answer that?

How do you think I want you to answer that?

—Oh please. Not that again. You want us to read your mind.

Well, actually, I want you to read your mind. To reflect. Decide.

—Honestly, Mr. K. Emily is right. I find the question overwhelming. Can you at least give us a hint on how to begin?

You might say that I’m asking you a question of taxonomy. You can—

—Oh, well, taxonomy! Why didn’t you say so!

—Stop, Em. Let him finish.

Thank you, Adam. Look: you hear an old song on your phone. You ask yourself “Is that East Coast rap or West Coast rap?”

—What? What does rap have to do with this?

The point is that you know the song you’re hearing is hip-hop, just as you know that what happened between 1861 and 1865 was a war. The question is what kind. Does it have the more laid-back style of the West Coast? Or the denser rhymes of the East Coast?

—Do you actually know anything about hip-hop, Mr. K? You seem kinda old for it.

Why thank you, Jonah. I’ll take that as a compliment. In fact, I know very little about hip-hop. It was after my time. But by paying attention to little details, I may find myself able to understand it a little better.

—I still don’t understand where you’re going with this. I mean, sure, there are different kinds of hip-hop and different kinds of wars. But comparing hip-hop to the Civil War doesn’t make much sense. And I mean even if you could, why would you? It doesn’t seem to help anything.

Those are fair questions, Sadie. Admittedly, what I’m asking you is hard. But let me be a little more concrete. We’ve been talking about the Civil War for the last couple weeks. And, if you’ve been doing your homework (ahem), you’ve been reading some of the primary and secondary sources about the conflict. Based on that information—a limited, but sufficient, body of information—I want you to now try and make sense of it. Sense as something you make. Sense as something you make. So: Was the Civil War inevitable? Was it an unnecessary tragedy? Was it a just cause? Was it a struggle over slavery, or was it really something else?

—OK. I’m beginning to see. But like you say, what you’re asking is hard. Really hard.

—Sadie’s right.

—And Ethan’s right about Sadie being right. As much as I hate to say so.

I understand. It’s hard. Actually, that’s precisely why I’m asking. I know this is difficult. But I think you can do it.

—I do see better what you want now. But I have to say I’m still overwhelmed. I mean, let’s say I say the Civil War was a just cause. I think it was. But all those people died. Do I avoid statements that will weaken my thesis?

No, Kylie, you should not. Counter-evidence, and counter-argument are among the most important things you can learn to master in your academic life. And in your personal life, too. You don’t persuade people to come around to your point of view by avoiding arguments against it that you know are out there. You persuade them by showing you understand that there are other ways of looking at a situation, and then explaining why your point of view is still the right one.

—But how can I do that?

Again: it’s hard. But not impossible. Let’s go back to that line of thinking you tossed out about the Civil War as a just cause (and here I’ll point out that the word “essay,” which we think of as a noun, is also a verb. It means “to try out.” You essay an idea). You believe it was a just cause, and yet something like three-quarters of a million people died. Maybe it’s a just cause despite all those people dying. Yes, that was terrible, but at least some good came out of it. Or maybe it’s a just cause because all those people perished. Remember what Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address: he exhorted his fellow Americans to “resolve that these men have not died in vain.” (Important point, by the way: support your thesis with sources. You’re more persuasive when you bring other voices into the conversation.)

Of course, it’s always possible that in the course of trying to make an argument you’ll change your mind. That’s why the notion of essaying as trying out is important. Maybe, as you write, you’ll find you’re having a hard time supporting your argument because the act of making it leads you to believe the Civil War was not a just cause—it was a grotesque mistake, for example. Maybe you’ll come to see the Gettysburg Address as an effort to put lipstick on a pig, as it were, to assuage grief over a terrible mistake. Kind of a hard way to look at it, admittedly. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

—I guess for me this is kind of the problem. I know that I can’t really prove any argument I’m making, because I know that there are ways of attacking all of them.

I think you’re not viewing this in quite the correct light, Yin. You don’t “prove” a thesis. In history, you rarely prove anything. You argue. If you’re case is airtight, you’re stating a fact (or, at any rate, common sense, which sometimes passes as fact). It’s precisely because a proposition is arguable that it’s worth developing. I’m not grading you on the airtightness of your essay. I’m grading you on how well you frame the question, how well you support the thesis you do have, how well you acknowledge or handle objections to it, and—a little on the larger implications. I say a “a little,” because that’s a challenge for another day.

—Phew. Something you’re not asking us to do.

That’s right, Sadie. Rome doesn’t get built in a day.

—I’m still scared, though.

Good.

—You want me to be scared?

A little. It will make your triumph all the more satisfying.

—You think I’m going to triumph?

Always, Sadie. I have faith in you. All of you.

—Hmmm, Mr. K. That’s a questionable thesis.

 

 

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