“The thesis is there to prove that we are no longer just students, absorbing information from other people. In the thesis project, we find our own sources and reach our own conclusions…we truly have to create something.” This, according to one of our graduates, was the highlight of Cary Christian School’s senior thesis project. After thirteen years of school the tables are turned: the students are now the teachers, and the teachers are the ones asking the questions.
I thought about this reversal two years ago as I sat in the bleachers of the gym for my second grade daughter’s Christmas program. As she and her classmates stood before us reciting Scripture from the Gospel of Luke and singing “Joy to the World,” I realized (with a bit of shock) that in just a few short years these same boys and girls will be seniors. That April, they will stand at the podium in the auditorium teaching their classmates, parents, and teachers about theological disputes, bioethical dilemmas, and political controversies. Those lower school students may look small and cute now, but watch out! Give them a few more years of literature, science, math, languages, history, logic, and rhetoric, and they will be able to uphold and defend their ideas better than any other eighteen-year-old you’re likely to meet.
The senior thesis, as you may know, consists of a 15-25 page research paper, written during the second and third quarters of the senior year, followed by a 30-minute oral presentation and defense during the fourth quarter before an audience and a panel of three faculty members. As the 12th grade rhetoric teacher, my job is to guide students through the process of selecting thesis topics, researching and writing their papers, and preparing for their oral presentations. The seniors are understandably nervous, as you or I would have been if we had done this kind of project in high school (and most of us definitely did not). However, as I reassure the students, every one of them is already prepared to do this project by the time they reach my class. They have already written papers, engaged in debates, presented to their classmates, and stood before large crowds at assemblies. By the time they are seniors, all they need me to do is to coach them through it.
Why is the senior thesis so important? I consider the skills it cultivates to be the antidote to some of the most serious challenges young people face today. Consider just three of these:
1. Young people must develop real communication skills.
The average teenager today spends nine hours a day in front of screens—not including time for schoolwork. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Some may assume that apps like Snapchat and Instagram provide all of the social interaction they need. On the contrary, we are realizing more all the time the degree to which the digital life is an artificial one. What we really need is to engage with real people about real issues, which can only happen through genuine personal interaction. In school, a robust rhetoric curriculum—of which the senior thesis is only part—develops the skills needed for high-quality face-to-face discussion and debate, providing opportunities for both formal and informal public speaking.
Many students realize the extent to which these crucial skills will benefit them for years to come. Looking back on the senior thesis project, another of our graduates told me, “The most valuable part was when I had to defend my topic and promote it in front of a panel of judges, because this setting has so many practical life lessons. From pitching a new idea to a committee for your job, or even just sitting down in a job interview, this setting will be recurring in life, and it’s a great skill to have already been able to practice as a high schooler.”
2. Young people must calmly but vigorously defend their beliefs and ideas.
“Angry College Students Shout Down Controversial Speaker.” You’ve seen that headline or video dozens of times by now, haven’t you? Whatever happened to engaging someone in a real debate? Unfortunately, there is a good chance that someone unwilling to engage in a real discussion or debate is simply incapable of doing so. But without open and honest debate, we lose so much that is important: there can be no real thinking, no sincere persuasion, and no authentic relationships. For Christians especially, we need to remember the words of the Apostle Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). This is not just an academic skill, but a mark of discipleship. (For more on this topic, see “Are They Ready to Give an Answer?”)
I love the way another student described the purpose of the senior thesis: “The year of researching is to broaden our mindset and to look at a controversy on both sides of a coin. The writing enables us to maturely defend and back our thoughts and perspectives in respect to the other side…The ability to decide what you believe in and how to best express it and defend it is what lies behind the purpose of the thesis.”
3. Young people must fight against the misinformation that threatens to drown them.
Many believe that anything you really need to know can be found on Wikipedia or through a three-second Google search, and any news story you read on Twitter must be true if it confirms your preconceptions. Right? No, not at all. In spite of what some overly-optimistic tech writers have been predicting for years, young people who have grown up with the internet are not as versatile with it as one might expect, and they need as much training as anyone else (if not more) as they learn how to separate what is true from what is false. “Why learn history (when it is already on your phone)?” the title of a recent book asked. There are plenty of reasons, perhaps most of all because without an understanding of how to perform effective research, the information you access through your phone will be woefully misleading and incomplete.
The basis for the senior thesis is solid research, which is why students are trained to seek out perspectives on their topics offered in high-quality books and scholarly journal articles. Typically, the juniors and seniors travel to the libraries at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and UNC Chapel Hill, where they traverse the stacks in search of sources for the junior and senior thesis papers. Beyond that, students are required to pursue sources on both sides of the debate they are considering. An entire section of their thesis consists of the refutatio, in which they accurately lay out objections to their thesis and answer them.
This process is invaluable. As yet another student told me, “I learned that the core of many controversies and problems in society is based on ignorance…I now have learned that before forming an opinion, I need to research.”
We consider the senior thesis to be our “capstone” project at Cary Christian School because in it the skills students have been cultivating for thirteen years—from logic and rhetoric classes all the way down to those adorable Christmas programs—come together in a remarkable way. They demonstrate that over the years they have learned more than mere facts: they have learned how to learn.
Want to know more about what students from previous years have thought about the senior thesis? Here’s what others had to say:
“The senior thesis is valuable because it allows seniors to delve into a topic of their choosing that they are passionate about. They have the opportunity to look into this topic with the help of faculty advisors and research so that they can form an educated opinion on the topic. They spend enough time on this that hopefully their research will influence their thoughts and actions in the future. It also gives a chance for seniors to learn how to conduct a major research project with the help of teachers who are willing to help before they are thrust into large projects in college with minimal instruction.”
“Going into the thesis process, I was dreading it. I didn’t know what topic to pick. I essentially had no direction, and while I was confident that I could find direction if I put in a lot of work, I didn’t really feel like putting in all that work…After putting in all that work, I was a lot more confident, and by the time I was presenting, I wasn’t nervous at all. I cared a little bit more about my topic and was glad that I actually reached a conclusion that is both defendable and that I believe.”
“I learned that presentations actually aren’t all that scary.”
“It was at the end of the whole assignment, when I finished my presentation, that I learned something about myself. I realized that I can do a great job, that I can formulate my arguments, that public speaking isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
“I have always been really scared to talk in front of people, especially when questioning is involved. This senior thesis really showed me that I should not be as nervous and anxious to talk in front of people. It showed me that even when I am super nervous and feel horrible that I can still do a good job.”
“I am excited that I was able to successfully present my own thoughts and opinions…Every time someone would ask me what my topic was about, I was excited to explain my topic and talk about it with them…I feel like at the beginning of the year I was dreading thesis and was worried about presenting it, but once I started practicing my speech, I realized that I was prepared and confident about my topic since I had spent so much time with it.”
“I am more appreciative of the thesis now that I have done it than when I began. I think I learned a lot about myself and matured as a student.”