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Writing an Essay: Questioning the Question

When you receive an essay title it’s likely that it will include words and phrases such as: “to what extent”; “assess the validity of the view”; “evaluate the statement that” or “how far do you support the view”. As soul-sapping as these phrases may be (honestly, how inspired can anyone possibly feel when faced with an “assess the validity” question) they point to an important aspect of history essay writing: there is unlikely to be a black and white answer.

Let’s take an example:

To what extent do you agree that the American Civil Rights movement was won by peaceful rather than violent means?

If you are one of my students, you’ll already know that the first thing I’m going to do is tell you to unpick or “interrogate” the question. Let’s define some terms: the Civil Rights movement is generally said to refer to the movement in support of equal rights for African Americans but of course it also came to cover the Women’s and Gay Rights movements. We need to make sure we are clear about which elements we are discussing.

Next, the question is working on the assumption that we will agree with its premise (posh, philosophical term for statement of fact that we all agree on). The premise here is that the Civil Rights Movement was won: was it? When? Do we take it that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the crowning achievement of the movement? Would the leaders of the movement agree with that (it seems unlikely since they went on to demand the Voting Rights Act in 1965).

Finally: let’s think about the possible examples of peaceful versus violent. Certainly Martin Luther King was encouraging his followers to engage in peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience but the tactic (developed from watching Gandhi’s success in India) was more calculating than it may appear. The civil disobedience was designed to be irritating and disruptive, to get a reaction from their opponents and, were that reaction to turn violent, it would make excellent TV footage which could be shared with the world and underscore the impression that the Civil Rights Activists were the good guys. Without a reaction, would their movement have been so successful?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but it is vital to decide your view and share it with your reader before you embark on the journey of your essay. Having asked these questions, it becomes clear that you can not simply answer with “I agree to some extent” – there are too many strands to the question for that to be a meaningful response. So how should you respond to the statement? Here’s an example of an opening that would get me, as a teacher and examiner, really excited about what was to follow:

If the American Civil Rights Movement could be said to have been won, it was in 1965 after the passing of the Voting Rights Act. This marked the point at which African Americans had full legal (if not practical or economic) equality with all other Americans. Of course the Civil Rights Movement could also refer to women’s rights and gay rights but it seems reasonable to discount these two elements for the purpose of this essay as it is arguable if they have actually achieved their goals. Thus, we return to 1965 and consider what enabled the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to be passed: peaceful or violent means? While the majority of activists may have subscribed to the methods of Gandhi, it would be naïve to suggest that violence played no part in their success, it is simply that the violence was on the side of their opponents and gifted the movement the moral high ground.

OK, that’s pretty wordy and long but notice how it doesn’t simply accept the question in its original form: it chews it over, questions its premises and clarifies its own interpretation. From here, whatever points you have to make, can link back to this, giving you a piece of writing that flows naturally towards a conclusion.

If you’ve got an essay to write and are struggling with the question: pop it below and let’s see if we can interrogate it together.

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