The Thesis Statement: An Illogical Icon of the Culturally Biased
It takes time, commitment, and patience to reduce “Grammar Panic” to a mild anxiety about how to use commas and quotation marks. “Thesis panic,” however, doesn’t go away so easily. A good student may forestall “thesis panic” by studying a handbook, utilizing online resources, and seeking personal assistance. Unfortunately, even if the effort seems to produce a good thesis, it often ends up a poor fit for the completed essay. If this happens, panic returns as you remember how difficult it was to write the that now needs fixing. Even when your thesis still fits the essay like a glove, a new essay is due next week, and chances are thesis panic will return. Why? Have you reached the limit of your aptitude?
Probably not! “Thesis panic” is a legitimate fear generated by three factors beyond your control. First, writing a thesis statement before thoroughly understanding your topic is illogical. Second, the expectations for what a thesis must accomplish are virtually impossible to fulfill within the framework of a college course. Finally, the idea that a thesis statement is prerequisite for development of productive essays is a culturally biased idea.
The “Backward” Premise!
Trying to write a thesis statement before understanding the subject is ignoring the way we learn about the world. It’s putting the cart before the horse, building the house before the foundation, running a victory lap before the race. The process goes like this: we define a topic, collect verifiable information inductively, categorize the information using comparison and contrast techniques, develop an hypothesis, then utilize deductive logic to convert hypothesis into thesis. Only then can we feel comfortable that we have a thesis about which we can make a solid statement.
Acknowledging that the idea of “Thesis First” is illogical, instructors suggest creating a temporary or “Working Thesis” that changes as the essay develops. One can think of a Working Thesis as any thesis in which the elements of inductive evidence and deductive logic are incomplete. Essentially it is another word for an hypothesis. Accuracy and dependability are not expected of an hypothesis. So one shouldn’t worry about the accuracy of a Working Thesis
It’s a nice theory, unfortunately, when one makes a substantial effort to create a good thesis, preserving the effort entices the writer to ignore conflicting information as research proceeds. In addition, the suggestion to change ones Working Thesis fights with a cultural reality that glorifies the unproven thesis. The bounty of unchallenged half-truths and faulty logic used to create news, or to vilify our politicians exemplifies this phenomenon. Unsubstantiated ignorance goes Viral in today’s society just as quickly as a hot new You Tube video.
Making its illogical process even scarier is the ease with which one characterizes a thesis as a form of “truth.” Nothing suggests that a thesis is a form of “truth” more than looking at expectations for what a thesis must accomplish. Type the words “how to write a thesis” into one a top search engine like Google and you get about 12 million hits. A cursory examination of reputable sources reveals thesis expectations similar to those paraphrased below from the OWL at the University of North Carolina.
*It provides a road map telling the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
*It directly answers any topic question asked of you.
*It is not just about something, a thesis interprets or offers a way to understand a subject.
*It is not just a fact. It makes a claim that is disputable.
*It is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph.
*The rest of the paper presents a logical argument, backed by research, that persuades the reader of the truth of your interpretation.
Obviously, a thesis statement is not just an opinion. It’s not just a fact! It’s most similar to a declaration of “truth,” albeit limited. Expectations such as the above are repeated in grammar handbooks and in the classroom. They are intimidating enough to create panic for anyone, including me, and I’ve earned a living writing for over forty years.
Unfortunately, turning to the professor can worsen panic. Many instructors are culture blind and assume that failure at thesis writing indicates either inferior intelligence or undeveloped skills. Believing in inferior intelligence, the “secret elitist” often—not so secretly—considers thesis writing a litmus test for brain power.
Believing in undeveloped skills, the “populist” helps one rewrite a thesis multiple times, creating what English instructor Fan Shen refers to as a “forced/false thesis” in his essay The Classroom and the Wider Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English Composition. The essay limes Shen’s personal transition from Eastern to Western academic writing. His essay doesn’t deal with language, but with the fundamental difference in the way each culture develops ideas and transmits knowledge in a composition.
“In Chinese composition from “surface to core” is an essential rule, a rule which means that one ought to reach a topic gradually and systematically instead of abruptly.” Shen elaborates by explaining the six steps of Chinese composition and compares them with the thesis-first pattern of Western composition, which first struck him as illogical.
Shen concludes that these are cultural differences, and that being opposites, each culture sees the other as inferior. Obviously, to view either approach as inferior or superior does not reflect the success with which each approach has worked in its respective culture. In brief, the inability to develop a good opening thesis statement does not mean intellectual weakness, and instructors who excessively revere the thesis statement need a broader perspective. They need to be aware of the cultural issues involved. It does not mean composition instructors should no longer require thesis statements, a point made by Shen who now teaches English at Rochester Community and Technical College, where the thesis is still part of the curriculum.
One implication of the cultural differences noted by Shen is that our emerging culture is more open to the type of thinking that is fundamental to the Chinese or Eastern approach to knowledge expression. That is a matter worth separate investigation.
Ultimately, Thesis Panic is caused by the student confrontation with what I consider “Thesis Bias” caused by its counter-intuitive design, unreal expectations, and cultural chauvinism. Just by knowing that developing a thesis statement is not the “holy grail” of knowledge may help some students. Nevertheless, it will not help students escape the need to understand and develop competency at this culturally significant, dubious shortcut to knowledge.