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.


Essay Error A: Trying to Get it Right

This is the first of two posts reflecting on a problem with a lot of the essays I’m marking at the moment that has been bothering me. Despite a lot of time spent with the students on essay writing, something really doesn’t seem to be getting through to them: that an essay is an argument that they have to defend. The twin poles of this error are when students try to hard to get the right answer and when students don’t think there is a right answer at all. This is something I need to think about carefully for next year, as it is a problem I want to address with them, coming out of, I think, changes in secondary and tertiary education as well as a basic scientism shared by most of our students when they come in the door.

New students, in line with the common sense thinking about the issue, think that issues of truth can be more or less divided into two categories: matters of fact and matters of opinion. Matters of fact are the domain of experts, particularly scientists. They are the truth and cannot be disputed. Matters of opinion are things that can be disputed, but ultimately hold no truth or power, because it’s all just down to your own perspective really and no one is more right than anyone else. The two basic errors in essay design map onto these two extremes. This post will deal with the first, the next will deal with the second.

This basic error is trying to get an essay right. This manifests as a student desperately trying to make sure they are saying the truth about a topic (Plato believed such and such, he lived in such and such a time, he was important because x). The job of an essay is to be evidence of their comprehension of the facts and the task of referencing is to demonstrate the student has got the fats from the right places. Concordantly, the job of referencing is to prove that they have read the books they were supposed to read.

To explain what I mean, here are some traits of this sort of essay I’ve noticed.

  • A complete lack of discussion of disagreement among secondary sources, because the presupposition is that they all agree because they are authorities telling the truth about the topic or philosopher: they must be all saying the same thing in different ways
  • Stating a view from a secondary source as though it is objective fact, without introducing said source or even implying that the view is a viewpoint, simply dropping a reference at the end of the sentence in an utterly unexplained way
  • Not citing the primary source at all. What is being discussed is not an argument found in a text but a list of truths about said text that just need to be stated, and the marker knows them too so why would they need to know where the argument occurs?

What is certainly missed in this error is that philosophy deals in interpretation. What each scholar defends, even in introductory guidebooks, is an interpretation of a view on the philosopher. And, what we expect from an essay, is an engagement with that debate and some sort of defence of a position within it, or at a minimum a review of the various positions possible and critical comparison of their strengths and weaknesses.

The roots of the problem seem quite easy to pinpoint: a belief that all domains of knowledge, like science, are matters of fact. But, it is difficult to explain what is wrong with this attitude without seeming to defend the second basic error: that the reason philosophy isn’t about fact is that there is no right answer and everything is an opinion.