By Amy Fahey, Visiting Fellow
The year-long process of formulating, researching, writing, and defending a Senior Thesis is arguably the most daunting and rewarding experience of a student’s four years at Thomas More College. For the class of 2020, this experience took on the added challenge of a pandemic outbreak, which forced students to evacuate campus just as the first drafts of their theses came due. This meant that all further advising and rewriting had to be done remotely, without the usual benefit of the in-person conversation between student and advisor, the communal “final push” to submit the finished magnum opus, or the flurry of campus excitement and wardrobe crises as seniors prepared to defend their these before a faculty panel and student peers.
“A characteristic of the theses here at Thomas More is that a student almost always brings his or her whole liberal education to bear on a single topic. When this happens, and a student brings four years of learning into a focus, I feel reassured that the quiet work of teaching the liberal arts has its success in the one place that matters—the human soul.” — Mr. Fred Fraser
But the Senior Class of Thomas More College endured the trial with grace and fortitude. And earlier this month, the faculty and student body were delighted to witness the Class of 2020 defend their theses. Though they had to occur in a less-than-perfect online format, the theses defenses served as a fitting culmination to the seniors’ four years of reading and discussing the great works of the Western intellectual tradition. Their theses topics, listed below, span a broad range of theological, philosophical, political, historical, literary, and aesthetic considerations, and treat writers ranging from Aristotle and St. Thomas to Russell Kirk and T. S. Eliot. Despite the broad scope and diversity of topics, the theses are unified in their exploration of the truth and their foundational understanding of how man has communicated that truth throughout history. As Teaching Fellow Fred Fraser notes, “A characteristic of the theses here at Thomas More is that a student almost always brings his or her whole liberal education to bear on a single topic. When this happens, and a student brings four years of learning into a focus, I feel reassured that the quiet work of teaching the liberal arts has its success in the one place that matters—the human soul.”
The hour-long theses defenses seemed to fly by for faculty, who were thoroughly enjoying the conversations with the students. “Last night, the five adults around our table devoted our whole dinner conversation to a recap and discussion of one thesis,” writes Visiting Fellow Phil Lawler. “These aren’t just dry academic exercises; they’re exciting enough to bring home.” Dr. Sara Kitzinger agrees. “In spite of the difficulties of a virtual thesis defense,” she notes, “I thought the conversation between students and faculty was quite impressive. In the sessions I participated in, the conversation was so lively and provocative, we could have easily gone on for another hour! For example, one impressive defense treated the relationship between John Henry Newman’s understanding of ‘real assent’ and his phrasing of the ‘poetic view of the world’—our conversation treated everything from Romanticism and Aristotle’s Poetics to the role of reason in faith and the problem of liberalism.”
Below, two graduating seniors, Jack Monbouquette and Grace Mentink, share their impressions on the Senior Thesis experience.
Jack Monbouquette, “From the Stones of Venice to the Bricks of Maiden Lane: A Comparative Study of the Aesthetic and Socio-Economic Criticism of John Ruskin”
At the College, most of the essays that we write are explicative or analytical. By ‘explicative,’ I mean that most of the essays either ask students to give a philosopher’s or poet’s account of some idea or event (e.g., Aristotle’s conception of time or being); by ‘analytical,’ I mean that students are asked to interpret an author’s words or explain the connection between two different works and/or ideas. What I found most challenging about writing the senior thesis was that it had to be a demonstrative essay, one in which we had to argue for a specific interpretation of an author or about an idea using many different texts.
One of the rewarding experiences I had during my year of research and writing was learning John Ruskin’s technical vocabulary. One academic once said that you can say that you understand or have mastered someone’s philosophy or writings when you are fluent in their technical language, that is, in the way they use words and what they mean by them. While I certainly would not say that I am fluent in Ruskin’s language of art and political economics, I was very happy when I found myself thinking about what I was seeing and reading with Ruskin’s vocabulary. I had one of these experiences when I read The Leopard for our senior seminar, Nostra Aetate. At one point in the book, Lampedusa mentions ‘powdered devils’ depicted on the frescoes in a Sicilian palace. When I read that, I recognized it as an example of what Ruskin means by his term ‘Grotesque Renaissance.’ On the first page, he mentions that the painting of Mary Magdalene in the same palace usually just looked like a ‘handsome blonde’ lost in some ‘dubious daydream.’ Upon reading that, I realized it was an example of what Ruskin meant by ‘Renaissance infidelity.’ In summary, learning any philosopher’s technical vocabulary is rewarding because it enables you to penetrate the meaning or at least ruminate on the subjects of any book or lecture that can be expanded by knowledge of a technical vocabulary in some way.
When I finished reading my presentation during the thesis defense, Dr. Fahey, my advisor, said he was convinced by the connection I had drawn between Ruskin’s aesthetic and political-economic writings, and that now we could move to some conversational questions. That was very rewarding because it indicated to me that I had made a convincing and persuasive argument. Having Dr. Fahey’s acceptance of what I argued made me feel that I actually had contributed to the academic study of John Ruskin, and that I was capable of edifying others by what I wrote.
Grace Mentink, “The Parables of Christ: Concealing to Reveal”
The overwhelming gift of my thesis is still sinking in, but I have pulled together a few general thoughts about it.
I chose Christ’s parables as my thesis topic because I wanted my research, writing, and defense to be a prayer. Particularly, I wanted to spend my senior year pondering Christ’s answer to the disciple’s question “why do you speak to them in Parables?” At the beginning of the year, I didn’t quite realize the full richness of this inquiry, that ultimately, Christ’s purpose for the parables articulates the broader paradox of divine revelation: that divine truths must be concealed in order to be revealed. I felt all year long that my topic was continually unfolding before me, and even up until the day of my defense, I was still discovering new things about the parables.
This continual growth is what seems to most characterize my experience of the senior thesis. New and beautiful truths were constantly being laid before me, and I was constantly being humbled by their splendor. This particular trait was both a blessing and a challenge, and at times I found myself overwhelmed by the broad spectrum of commentary and exegesis of the parables. Nevertheless, I was heartened by the thought that the final draft and defense of my thesis do not mark its end, but another stage of growth. I fully intend to spend many more years thinking and praying with Christ’s parables.