A Classical School’s Guide to Senior Thesis Research, Introduction: Classical Education and Information Literacy

This article is the introduction to an ongoing series aimed to equip students at classical schools with the skills needed to research for their senior thesis. To get links to the entire series, click here

What is a Senior Thesis?

In most classical Christian schools, 12th graders are expected to write, present, and sometimes defend, a senior thesis. The senior thesis is a wonderful opportunity for students to take the skills they have learned throughout their educational experience (skills like thinking logically and being able to communicate with clarity, eloquence, and wisdom), and apply these in a field the student feels passionate about.

Some senior theses that were presented at classical schools in recent years included topics as diverse as the following:

  • Alexa Listens to All My Problems: Why Artificial Intelligence Assistants Harm Us
  • How to Save a Life: Why Parents’ Religious Belief Should be Overruled in Life Saving Treatment for their Children
  • Dueling With Dualism: Theology And Neuroscience Supporting Anthropological Monism
  • A Moral and Practical Justification of a Compensation-Based Kidney Transplantation System
  • Keep The Conversation Going: Why Censorship is Not the Answer to Hate Speech
  • A Budding Concept: Why Christians Should Support the Use of Medical Marijuana for Pain Relief
  • The Gender Wage Gap Myth: Why the Gender Wage Gap is Not Due to Male Privilege
  • In the Eye of the Beholder? A Biblical Understanding of Artistic Beauty

It is not unusual for these theses to reach a higher standard than most college papers. Sometimes the senior theses and the associated presentations are of such high quality that schools are even invited to bring their students on lecture tours.

Are 12th Graders Adequately Prepared For Senior Thesis?

There are many aspects of a classical education that prepare students for the research component of their senior thesis. Since a classicaleducation is based on the Great Books, including a heavy dose of literature from ancient Greece and Rome (which is, after all, the justification for calling this education “classical”), these students will have spent years at the feet of the best writers and the wisest thinkers in Western civilization. Moreover, having been expected to write essays every semester, they will have had ample opportunity to hone their essay-writing skills long before coming to senior thesis class.

Yet for all this preparation, many students find themselves unprepared for the research component of the senior thesis. They may be incredible writers, skilled communicators, and they may be masters of logical argumentation; yet all this is not sufficient to write a good senior thesis if the student has not been trained in the craft of research.

Consider the case of Jacob, who has been attending a classical school since 6th grade and is now in the first semester of 12th.  He has been taught to be a good reader and a skilled thinker, but he has never been taught best practices for information retrieval. When Jacob has an information need, his “research methods” are indistinguishable from millions of other young people his age: he simply speaks or types a query into Google, and then sees what comes up. Sometimes Jacob finds what he needs quickly, but often he has to click around a bit until his search reaches closure. When Jacob is working on a school project, he will sometimes spend quite a while on his PC deeply engrossed in surfing the web.

Jacob considers himself quite a good researcher, for he can find his way around the internet with alacrity, and over the years he has developed a knack for knowing the sorts of websites he can trust. Yet if you were to ask Jacob to explain how he identifies trustworthy sources, he wouldn’t be able to say. He doesn’t know how to use site limiters to refine a Google search, and has never used the databases on library computers. Jacob also wouldn’t be able to tell you what critical thinking skills are important for source evaluation, nor what epistemic virtues are necessary for distinguishing fact from opinion.

Jacob wants to do his senior thesis on the relationship between immigration and the rise of neo-Fascism in Europe, and he is just beginning to research for this project. Not surprisingly, Jacob is doing senior thesis research just like he’s always done research, clicking around on Google until he finds something that seems useful, often following hyperlinks from one site to the next. Jacob’s mother is “old school” and asks him to go to a library to research using books. Since beginning work on his senior thesis, Jacob has been to his local library a couple times, and found a couple books that looked promising, both published over five years ago.

Jacob’s ineptitude as a researcher is not his own fault. He is a smart student, consistently gets good grades, and he is open to learning. Yet no one has ever bothered to teach him how to research. Jacob’s experience is not unique, and is shared by the majority of students in classical schools: they have been taught to read well, to think well, to write well, but they have not been taught how to be “information literate.” They are still producing great work, as mentioned above, and yet this work could be even better if a little information literacy instruction were incorporated into senior thesis class. But what exactly is this thing called “information literacy”?

Research and Information Literacy

Most of us do research every day. When you ask Google to find the nearest gas station, or when you look up a recipe or sports statistic, you are doing research. Since most of us perform research every day, we might as well know how to do it right.

Although all of us perform research all the time, that doesn’t mean that all of us are good researchers. To be a good researcher involves the confluence of a very specific set of computer-based skills and epistemic virtues that do not necessarily arise automatically from studying the Great Books. These research skills, which are often grouped together under the broad category of “information literacy,” include such things as being familiar with ways to use information networks (both digital and physical) to find relevant information and weed out what is irrelevant. Information literacy also involves knowing how to use computer applications for research in both liberal arts and STEM subjects. It involves being able to use critical thinking to evaluate information sources, in addition to exercising epistemic virtue when working with information.

For a variety of reasons that will be discussed below, many classical schools de-emphasize information literacy, even in 12th grade senior thesis class.

What Has Classical Education to do With Information Literacy?

There are a number of reasons that classical schools are generally lacking when it comes to training students in these information literacy skills. Some of these reasons are practical and some ideological.

See Also

Most teachers who oversee a senior thesis class have a background in the liberal arts in general, and rhetoric in particular, and thus they may be suspicious of information literacy, which tends to be more associated (whether rightly or wrongly) with the social sciences and STEM subjects.

Another factor is that many teachers still prefer the model of research that persisted when they were young before online journals and databases significantly altered the research landscape. Since being information literate in the contemporary world involves using computer applications for information retrieval, this may seem unappealing to educators who pursued the liberal arts specifically to avoid working with technology. The technological components of information literacy may even be seen as antithetical to the ethos behind a classical approach to the humanities.

Another factor is that some classical educators who recognize that the liberal arts have inherent value in and of themselves and not merely as a means towards external ends (which is quite true, as I have argued here and here), will then commit a non sequitur by assuming that those disciplines that derive their value as means to practical ends are lacking in value or are not the proper object of classical education. This can be seen in the fact that so many classical educators use scare quotes whenever talking about education that is “useful,” or employ the adjective “utilitarian” as a pejorative for devaluing knowledge that brings practical benefit. This leads to the bizarre spectacle of students who live in a 50% Hispanic community who cannot speak a word of Spanish yet spend an entire year learning Homeric Greek, or students who are never given a class on applied critical thinking and cognitive distortions but spend four semesters studying syllogistic logic, or students who are never taught how to manage money but are taught a course on the philosophy of economics. Each of these scenarios are based on real-world examples I have encountered. The most glaring incongruity I have observed is the idea that using school resources to teach computer coding is bad, since programing is “useful,” whereas using resources to teach symbolic logic is good, even though computer code and symbolic logic are virtually identical.

These reactionary assumptions about the goal of education need not concern us here, other than to say that all the great thinkers of the past, with perhaps the exception of Socrates and Emerson, would have found this dualism quite quixotic, if not a total betrayal of a holistic anthropology. For the best thinkers of our tradition, to be a mature man or woman involved the application of virtue and competency to the particular historical and cultural contingencies of one’s unique time, place, and vocation. Just as Michelangelo could not have been a great artist without achieving competency in practical skills like mixing paints and knowing how to use a hammer and chisel, so students today cannot be good thinkers and writers without achieving competency in the practical skills comprising information literacy. And just as the craft of mixing paints was different in Michelangelo’s time than in our own, so the craft of research is different today than it was ten years ago, and will probably be different again five years from now.

What to Expect From the Upcoming Series

The upcoming series of articles I will be publishing will focus on the following four aspects of information literacy that can help students find information online when researching for their senior thesis.

  • How to Find Information Online
  • How to Leverage the Power of Google
  • How to Evaluate Online Information
  • How to Use Information from the Internet
  • How to Be Virtuous When Researching Online

But why the focus on researching online? What about researching with books? That is a good question, and there are a number of answers. First, for better or worse, books are no longer sufficient for most research questions, especially questions that have been discussed in electronic periodicals. Because of this, even a mediocre researcher must be familiar with methods of electronic information retrieval. Second, students in classical schools are generally already well-trained in how to read books, yet are lacking the skills to perform effective research online. Thirdly, whether we like it or not, contemporary students will likely be doing the majority of their research on the internet; thus, they might as well be taught the skills for doing this well. C.S. Lewis once said that good philosophy must exist to answer bad philosophy; in the same way, good information literacy skills must be taught to help counteract the lazy and uncritical ways we have grown accustomed to using Google.

A fourth reason for focusing on online research relates to a point I made in my book Saints and Scoundrels. I mentioned that someone who has never been trained to think will then, by default, be trained to be a bond-servant to the latest fads and fashions. Similarly, if we are not trained in the best practices for finding, evaluating, and using information online, then by default we will be subject to non-human forces like SEO, page rank, and Google’s AI machines. In a sense, information literacy is a way to take back our humanity, and to return power to the student that would otherwise be ceded to algorithms.

Further Reading

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