Essay Error B: There is No Right Answer

Following my last post talking about student essays that fail to deal with issues of interpretation by treating philosophy as a matter of fact, the opposite error I’ve found is to treat it as a matter of opinion. This mode, like all subjectivism, finds itself in an inherent contradiction (saying that there are no objective truths is actually to claim there is at least one objective truth, that there are no others). An example of this might be “Kant is wrong because he fails to recognise the subjectivity of humans, that we’re all different.”

Many students seem to have been warned away from this style of writing by the suggestion that an essay should not contain the word “I” or should not be written in the first person. This is a really ambiguous way of putting the point that seems to lead students into the error described in my previous post, that we are dealing with something objective, fact based, that doesn’t admit of interpretation at all. The trouble is, when we tell our students that we do in fact what to hear what they think, they interpret this as licence to opine to their hearts content.

Traits of this sort of essay are as follows:

  • Over-reliance on own examples and criticising philosophers based on their own opinions without any evidence or argument
  • Sometimes quite strong descriptive accounts grounded in secondary sources, but then a completely ungrounded critical section
  • Essay structures that survey several opinions about the topic only to conclude from this that manifold opinions means all opinions are equal

The interesting thing about these essays is that they can have first class level engagement with secondary sources and the text itself, since they do understand that scholars aren’t trading in fact, that there is no “correct Kant”, but then can have 2:2 or even 3rd class critical sections that abandon all scholarly skill previously demonstrated to the claim either that a) it just depends on what you think or b) none of these views match my own therefore they are not convincing.

Both the error of fact and error of opinion are easy to identify and describe and to moan about to colleagues. But, how to address them as a pedagogical problem? Next year, I think I’ll try and develop some active learning exercises. No matter how clearly one explains these problems and traits in essays, it will go out the window with the students when they are under the pressure of the deadline. Something active may help it sink in a bit more, though. I’ve tended to be a luddite about quiz apps for integrated learning, but some sort of multiple choice exercises where students are presented with essay sections of differing styles and asked to pick which one is best might help.

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