Education Higher Education Liberal Education Students

Senior Essays, Then and Now

Almost twenty years ago, the prodigious writer and commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. gave the annual commencement address at St. John’s in Annapolis. The title of his speech was “Who Cares If Homer Nodded?” and it was full of praise for what St. John’s does.

I was sitting on the dais that day next to Mr. Buckley, and I remember particularly how impressed—almost astonished—he was to read the titles of the Senior Essays that were listed together with the graduating students names and home towns.

Just a few days later, Mr. Buckley put his admiration into an op-ed for national circulation. He said that he had been struck by the achievements of the prize winners who are announced early in the program. He had assumed that they were a few stellar students who outshone their peers.

But then, when he saw the essay titles of all the graduating seniors, he was dumbfounded:

[blockquote] I was reconciled to having been exposed to a dozen prodigies, but a few moments later, one after another, the undecorated undergraduates filed by to receive their diplomas. The program listed their senior essays. I would run here the risk of incredulity. To guard against this, I quote exactly the titles of the essays of the first few seniors who, in alphabetical order, came up to receive their diplomas.[/blockquote]

[blockquote]Christopher Michael Anderson wrote on The Shapeless Vapour: An Investigation of the Beautiful Soul and Morality in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Jennifer Carey Bates wrote on A Second Look at the Legendary Seducer, Don Juan. Wesley Beato wrote on Ritrovai: Re-Encountering of the Self in Dante’s Inferno. Sarah Christen Bittle had a homely little title for her essay, A Subject that Interests Us Above All Others: A Study of the Foundations of Morality. Heather Alison Calvert gave us The Spiritual and the Perverse: The Agonizing Reality Revealed by an Antithetical Union. And Matthew David Caswell, Kant’s Theory of the Moral Self: Unity as the Condition for Completeness.[/blockquote]

[blockquote]That’s the kind of thing that can happen to students who want a true education.[/blockquote]

And it’s the same thing that is still happening to our students today. Here are just a few titles of the senior essays written by this year’s graduating students in Annapolis and Santa Fe:

  • How to Love Impossible Things: George Eliot on Social Change
  • Idealized Anastomosis in Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants
  • The Temperate Tempest: An Examination of Prospero’s Preference for Penitence
  • Duty and Revelation: A Study of Andrei’s Death in Leo Tolstoi’s War and Peace
  • The God Who Dies to Conquer Death: Exploring the Meaning Behind the Music and Text of the Passion Chorale in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
  • Why does Ishmael Whale? Finding Belonging in Moby-Dick
  • The Role of Beauty in Science as Seen in the Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen Paper and Responses to it Within the Context of Quantum Theory
  • The Receeding Figure: Sublime Moments in Three Landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich
  • The Broken Republic and the Paradox of Individualism: An Observation of Tocqueville’s New England Townships
  • The Mathematics that Underlies Natural Phenomena: On the Use of Analogy in Maxwell’s Exposition of the Electromagnetic Field
  • What is a Beautiful Conversation? An Interpretation of Socrates’s Palinode

There is really no secret to why our students continue, year after year, to compose essays on profound subjects that matter deeply to them. It’s simply because they spend their time here in the company of extraordinary authors who wrote about subjects that mattered deeply to them. Following the example of these authors, our students become accustomed to diving deep, and they learn how to bring their studies to bear on what is most important to them in life.

Yes, that is the kind of thing that can happen to students who want a true education.