At Hillsdale Classical Schools across the country, students write and defend a senior thesis before graduation. The thesis gives students an opportunity to reflect on their education, choose a subject they would like to study more deeply, and then write a substantial paper on that subject. Before graduation, seniors present their theses to their parents, friends, and teachers.
Elizabeth Hughes is a graduate of Founders Classical Academy of Leander and a sophomore at Hillsdale College, where she is studying Classics and English. I had lunch with her this week and we got to talking about our days together at Leander. Here, she remembers her senior thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Kathleen O’Toole: So Elizabeth, how does the senior thesis work at your school?
Elizabeth Hughes: At my school the prompt for the senior thesis is “chose a book from the curriculum and explain what it teaches us about human nature or the human good.” And you have an advisor, one of the faculty members, and you really dive into this question. You choose your book. And they push you on it. They ask you the question from every different angle, and you have to defend your position. It’s really helpful to have the advisor there to point out things that you don’t necessarily see the first time around.
KO: Tell me about your advisor. What was it like to meet with a member of the faculty regularly?
EH: My advisor was Mrs. Solorzano. We would just have casual conversations. I would say this is my idea; this is what I want to do, and she would say that’s too ambitious, you should scale it back! So she helped me refine my ideas, which was really helpful. If something was too rough around the edges, she wouldn’t give me the answer, but she would ask me questions to help me to think what I really wanted to say. Sometimes I had this rough idea and she would help me clarify it. It was just a conversation.
KO: Looking back on it, what did Mrs. Solorzano do for you that you could not have done on your own?
EH: She pointed out the flaws in my argument. I was so attached to it, that I didn’t even admit that it could be wrong. She said, no, you need to address this point in your paper because this is important.
KO: Think about when you were first finding out about the senior thesis. How did you feel at the prospect of doing it?
EH: It’s a bit intimidating, honestly, knowing you’re going to write this really big paper and defend it. But it was a challenge, and I wanted to rise to it. It sounded fun actually to write that long of a paper. So, I was also excited even though I was also a little bit scared.
KO: Which book did you choose, and how did you know that was the book for you?
EH: I chose The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I was fascinated with Hester. When I read the book she just stood out to me so much. And then I went back and figured out why. I realized that she stood out to me was because there is a question about the good with her, and that answered the question.
KO: Tell me about what you said in your essay. What was the point?
EH: The point! Yes, that’s the question. I was arguing that in order to live a good life you need to be able to suffer well. This is what Hester does. Suffering well involves not focusing on yourself, but loving others through your suffering. For Hester that involves loving Pearl, her daughter. On the flip side of that Hawthorne presents Chillingworth, a terrible man, very, very, very selfish. He also suffers, but he responds to it in a completely different way than Hester does. He doesn’t choose the human good. He feels pity for himself, and that destroys him. It doesn’t let him suffer well.
KO: Tell me what it was like to deliver your senior thesis. That must have been a big moment.
EH: Well, you got up there, and you introduced me. I was shaking like a leaf. Like I’m really about to do this; the whole soccer team is here watching me–wow! It felt very majestic to stand in front of the podium. I was confident because I knew what I was going to say, so I wasn’t nervous in that respect. I was just nervous for public speaking. That was how nervousness felt. I got into my speech and felt fine to read it and to address the audience, to look up now and then and not lose your place when you look back down. It was very comforting and fun to know everyone was there to support me. And then when I got to the end and the questions began, that was fun. It was a lot of back and forth and “what about this”, “did you ever consider this”. I didn’t feel like anyone was trying to grill me, which was what I had anticipated. It felt good because I had studied the book so much that I always had something to say. I had spent a whole year working on this question and this paper. I could answer their questions, and if they gave me a counter example, I could also give a counter example.
KO: Tell me about your panel. Who was on it?
EH: You were on my panel.
KO: I remember!
EH: And Mr. Solorzano and Mrs. Apel were on my panel.
KO: What kind of questions did they ask you?
EH: You asked me if her suffering was just or if her punishment for being sent out like an outcast if that punishment was just. I responded no because it was the punishment was for the sole purpose of punishment, not reparation. There was no intention for building her back up; it was just for breaking her down. Out of that she was able to suffer well regardless which made it even more noble.
KO: So suffering well is good even if the punishment you’re given is not a just punishment.
EH: Mr. Solorzano asked me a trickier question. He said, Do you need virtue in order to be virtuous? Did Hester need some disposition that enabled her to love that Chillingworth didn’t have. I still don’t know entirely. I’ve still been thinking about it actually, but I think you do need some sort of virtue in order to receive that virtue. I think Chillingworth could have. I think he certainly could have that virtue, he just chose to reject it. It’s available to anyone and everyone, but you need the grace, the mindset to be open to it in order to actually suffer well. I don’t remember what Mrs. Sable asked me. But I remember Mary Need?, a girl in the audience, she asked me if Hester needed Pearl, if Pearl was necessary for suffering. That made me think for a little bit. I answered yes, because she had to love something. She needed Pearl, to love her daughter, in order to live happily, to focus on something other than her suffering.
KO: When you think about that book, what do you think now? Are you still interested in it?
EH: Yes, very interested in it! I think if I had to go back and rewrite it, I think I would go back and rewrite it the exact same way. I think it’s just a fascinating question that Hawthorn proposes that suffering- this is so counterintuitive- like in order to be good, you have to suffer. But it’s more of your response to that suffering that makes it good or bad. I don’t think my attitude has changed for it because it’s such a lasting question. Everyone suffers to some degree more or less. I use the example of stubbing your toe like stubbing your toe is suffering. Even though that’s a small instance you can still respond to that.
KO: How did you feel when you were finished? What was that like?
EH: Oh I felt so happy! Like I could be anything or do anything, go anywhere! It was incredible. I just, I wrote this paper. I defended it. I did well. I had fun. I wanted to do it again- I was so sad that it was over. I was happy that I was able to accomplish it.
KO: I remember you mom and someone- your grandma maybe brought you…
EH: Oh, that was Charlotte. She brought A pluses for me, my own scarlet letter!
KO: That was great. I have a picture of all of you lined up with your scarlet As. Congratulations, Elizabeth, and thank you for this walk down memory lane!