Can equality pose a threat to liberty? It is a big question, but one Kerighan Wheeler, a senior at Founders Classical Academy of Lewisville found intriguing and decided to address in her senior thesis. Drawing from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the Revolution” and parts of “Democracy in America,” she concluded equality that is only partial can pose a real threat to liberty.
Like Kerighan, all seniors at ResponsiveEd’s Founders Classical Academies write and present a senior thesis, which allows them to assess what they have learned and direct the skills they have developed to a particular idea and book.
Assistant Headmaster Alex Misko said the senior thesis is the culmination of students’ work as it pushes them to become independent learners.
“I would describe senior thesis as a capstone to the curriculum over all. It provides the opportunity for a student to use the skills they have developed on a question of great importance to themselves, but also to man in general. As a teacher it is enjoyable to see a student develop a love for their topic during the project,” said Mr. Misko.
During the summer before their senior year, students pick a classical text addressing a question of fundamental human importance in the western tradition to study in depth. From philosophy and science to ethics and literature, students are free to choose any subject area to explore. During the fall semester after reading, outlining and summarizing the work, students pick a question of great traditional importance as a theme. Applying the theme to the text, students either use the text to explore the question or use the question to unlock the meaning of the text.
After formulating their idea in an abstract, students begin the work on writing a 12-15 page thesis. During the second semester of their senior year, they give a 15 minute oral presentation before a panel, which is open to the public. The panel, consisting of the thesis teacher, a thesis advisor and an additional teacher, asks the student questions for 10 minutes.
Throughout the process, students have the guidance of both Chris Kirk, who teaches the senior thesis class, and a mentor.
“The mentors are always there to get them back on track if they stray a little. To some extent they serve as secondary sources. The goal, by the time they graduate, is to have students who can tackle a big work or idea on their own. You never know what a student is capable of until you give them a little latitude,” said Mr. Kirk.
Topics can take on a wide range of issues. Last year a student wrote on bricolage explanation of evolutionary change through epigenetics. This year one student explored the effect of music on emotions. In addition to allowing students to pursue their particular interests, the wide range of topics also allow the mentors an opportunity to sharpen their own understanding of topics as they work closely with students.
“Many of our students pick books they have read before in a class that they may have lingering questions about or one that they particularly enjoyed. Many of our teachers can also be found after school talking with our students discussing class texts. I know that many of our senior thesis projects have been born out of those after class discussions,” said Mr. Kirk.
This year senior Holly Tidman explored the challenges Darwin’s theory of evolution poses to William Paley’s natural theology in her thesis.
“I thought it would make a good senior thesis topic because I knew I wanted to do something with science, but I don’t think it should be limited to a lab. I wanted to work on something that was interdisciplinary so I combined science with theology,” said Holly.
Jason Brogden, Founders’ high school science teacher, served as her senior thesis mentor.
“I am a chaperone of ideas. I proofread and check grammar, but I also give them challenging ideas, texts and articles that push their brains. I was really proud of Holly. She was provocative, clear and direct, not vague or general. She had really worked through the ideas and arrived at a conclusion,” said Mr. Brogden.
Beyond creating a bonding experience for all the seniors, the opportunity to work closely with a particular teacher, working within a less rigid structure, and taking full responsibility for a work prepares students for the transition from high school to college.
“Students really remember their senior thesis. I had alumni come back last year to talk to our current senior thesis class. I kept hearing the same thing: after senior thesis, college is easy. I wouldn’t say college is easy, but I would say that what they receive here puts them in a good position to be able to handle college level work,” said Mr. Kirk.