The following is an open letter from Scott Baker, WHA Rhetoric Instructor, to his students in the Rhetoric 2/Senior Thesis class this year.

Dear Seniors:

Congratulations on a great year completing the Senior Thesis process!  Now that you have survived the Defense and have completed your Final Draft, it’s time to celebrate.  Everyone in the WHA community is suitably proud of your achievement, especially since writing and defending a thesis is such a rare accomplishment in our high schools.  In light of your success, it seemed fitting to send you a letter congratulating you on your achievement and reflecting on what it means to all of us.

For starters, just have a look at these great titles you have attached to your projects:

  • “The Way God Intended:  Raising Chickens on the Small-Scale Farm”
  • “Glorious Labor:  An Examination of Work and a Synthesis of Happiness Philosophy”
  • “The Place of Abstract Art in the Christian Aesthetic”
  • “The Shaping of a Child Through Education”
  • “End-of-Life (To Kill or to Care):  Medicine and Voluntary Active Euthanasia.”
  • “One In Sixty-Eight:  The Autism Spectrum Epidemic”
  • “Balancing Reverence and Relevance in the Modern Church”

In the completion of a Senior Thesis project, you were expected to shine one final time as individual practitioners of the persuasive art of rhetoric, which you have certainly done.  Consider the following evidence:  a few of this year’s defense readers could not contain themselves or their joy when they encountered people like yourselves, ready as you were to defend your papers.  Remember the Defense this week in which the reader suddenly blurted out, “What a great class!,” when he realized how rare this opportunity is for people in high school?  I received similar emails from two other readers, one of whom opened with the exact same words:  “What a great class.  I wish every student heading to university could be as well prepared as you have prepared these students!”  She even followed up this written endorsement with a phone call.  A third response came from someone who actually entered into the Defense with strong opinions against her student’s Thesis.  Even she found herself voicing this striking endorsement:  “Thank you. That was quite an experience! I am very glad to have had the opportunity to participate as a Reader. Thank you for your work in this area.  I truly hope that I can find a way for my sons to experience this, too.”

I want you to know that it is really your work, not mine, that impresses your interlocutors so positively.  I am not the one responsible for preparing you.  I am the teacher who is blessed to channel into this final showcase the preparations you have received from your parents and your previous teachers.  To be honest, I do not know whether to be more impressed by the work done by each of you as individual writers or by the motions of the unseen Hand composing one common text within the sum of your “parts.”  As your teacher and coach, I hope you reflect upon this latter success just as much as the former:  what we discovered together as a class-through conversation was as unique and amazing as your individual success.

Chickens in Church

In my private contemplations, I have come to refer to your class with a silly title, dubbing you, “Chickens in Church,” because it collapses all of the titles and topics into a simple alliterative phrase but also advances an important truth about the Great Conversation we seek to engage as authors.  I think we should revel in this truth as one of the most exhilarating aspects of Trivium-driven learning:  once a group of diligent seniors sets out to write engaging papers on controversial issues, a dialectical conversation gets going to complement the rhetorical quest.  This conversation continues in the Senior Thesis Defense when an outside reader joins us to push the conversation along.  Throughout the process, an inevitable synthesis of connecting ideas ensues.  We find that no single topic chosen for rhetorical invention and argument “remains by itself, alone.”  Each one soon transgresses its artificial boundaries and begins to comment upon another, until the whole collection becomes an unexpectedly unified whole.  At first glance, the controversies surrounding chicken-raising and Christian worship seem totally independent of each other.  In the hands of mutually-supporting students, however, the topics and issues begin to overlap, and soon we have Chickens in Church.  This transforms the meaning of writing a school paper.

And we discover more than we may have expected at first.  One student’s objections to modern industrialized agriculture begin to move, like free-range chickens, into the fields of all the other students’ topics in unanticipated ways.  Perhaps a philosophy (of life, and work, and happiness) is embedded within practices of industrialized agriculture that oddly connects to assumptions in industrialized medicine and its contemporary debates about physician assisted suicide.  Should we think twice about the relationship between autism and diet in this setting?  In what ways is the contemporary worship phenomenon, dominated by electronic amplification, explained by the same sorts of connections?  How about modern education?  Should we embrace the 20th century phenomenon of abstract art as a “Christian” response to the reductions of human life in this industrial context?

Do you see how the mutual references synthesize and expand into unlimited dialectical possibilities?  Seven students and one teacher are enough to see the Great Conversation getting bigger and bigger.

All of this means the Senior Thesis process cannot be reduced to an individualistic, heroic quest.  The way we have begun to express this in class is that “the rhetorical must eventually revert back to the dialectical.” We begin to discover the interesting set of connections, overlaps, and mutual references among the topics, issues and arguments of your papers.  Along the way this year, we have tried to observe these connections whenever they stood out in our conversations.  There is joy in the journey, as we step down from our appointed rhetorical place and into the dialectic again, into the spacious geography of the Great Conversation.  Contrary to expectations, the Senior Thesis process breeds not rhetorical pride, but a habit of following the dialectical synthesis of all questions into a place of wonder, humility, and maybe even silence.

Whatever your plans for this summer and beyond, I hope you will reflect on the fact that SB in St Johnsyou will not have written this paper in solitary isolation as a lonely rhetorical individual.  When others come to test the strength of your arguments in the ensuing dialectic, they represent your greatest allies.  Did you expect your reader to arrive at your Defense with the intention of tripping you up?  Were you surprised to find that they wanted to help you succeed and tried with all their might to make that happen?  This custom is as old as civilization itself; we ourselves are welcomed into the Great Conversation as authors and now it is your turn to claim membership therein.

Congratulations and Many Blessings,

Scott Baker