Don't judge Elena Kagan by her college thesis.

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May 17 2010 6:39 PM

Youthful Indiscretions

Don't judge Elena Kagan by her college thesis.

Read Slate's complete coverage of Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court.

Elena Kagan. Click image to expand.
Elena Kagan 

Writing a college thesis is a four-step process: Brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. But college students considering a career in government should probably add a fifth: Politics-proofing.

The clamor over Elena Kagan's college writings have reached such a pitch that the White House announced that it will post both of her theses online.  The first is her Princeton senior thesis on the New York Socialist Party in the early 20th century. The second is a paper she wrote while at Oxford on the "exclusionary rule," the legal principle that allows a judge to deem evidence inadmissible in court.

Poring over a politician's college thesis has become routine—a quick way for opponents and the media to define a candidate they don't know much about. Hillary Clinton's thesis on Saul Alinsky riled conservatives during her presidential bid. Michelle Obama's essay on being a black student at a mostly white university sparked angry—and inaccurate—chain e-mails. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's masters thesis, in which he described feminists as "detrimental" to the family and said that government policy shouldn't favor "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators," nearly derailed his campaign. (McDonnell was 34 when he wrote it, but says his views have changed in the ensuing two decades.) Conservatives have now pounced on Kagan's Princeton thesis as evidence of socialist sympathies. It's like a treasure hunt. Whoever finds the most inflammatory quote wins.

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But a college thesis tells us little, if anything, about the person seeking office 30 years later. "What a thesis tells you is what a person is interested in learning more about at age 21," says Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University. But that's about it. In my case, that happened to be American Catholicism during the Spanish Civil War. Does that topic say anything about me now? Not really, except that I kind of liked Homage to Catalonia.

College thesis writing is a haphazard, often random process (as opposed to a doctoral dissertation, which takes more care). You have a few weeks to find a topic. You settle on one based on a combination of what hasn't been written, availability of sources, and, if you're lucky, a passing interest in the subject. Then you need an argument. You don't really know anything, though, so you end up overcompensating by making a stronger argument than the facts merit. If you aren't overstating your case, you aren't doing it right. You then have a semester to write a 50-page essay—a task that would be difficult even without the added burden of classes, extracurriculars, and the intense hepatic demands of senior spring.

Indeed, the entire thesis-writing industry seems geared toward endangering future politicians. Students are encouraged to find unexplored topics. (The greatness and sagacity of the Founders might be a politically safe subject, for example, but it's been done.) Professors also push students to challenge historical orthodoxy. Adhering to the status quo might help at the nomination hearing. But it makes for bad thesis writing.

Students are also buffeted by historical forces beyond their control. "The most important thing about a thesis is the year it was written," says Douglas Brinkley, a historian and professor at Rice University. Students can of course choose their own topics and arguments. But subject matter, research techniques, and political angles are dictated largely by trends in historiography. Clinton's interest in Saul Alinsky says as much about history departments in 1969 as it does about her. And, of course, writing about a political group is not the same as endorsing it. The oft-cited example is John Roberts' 1976 Harvard essay titled "Marxism and Bolshevism: Theory and Practice." Foner had a similar experience: "My first book was on the early history of the Republican Party—and I am not a Republican."

Theses of politicians shouldn't be off limits. It's useful to know what someone running for office now—or being nominated—was thinking early in life. But college is about screwing up. "I hate to think that my students have to live by everything they write in an academic report," says Brinkley, who has written biographies of Gerald Ford, Rosa Parks, and Theodore Roosevelt. Judging a Supreme Court justice by her thesis would be like judging Roosevelt, a mostly peacetime president, by his youthful bellicosity alone.

Journalists shudder at the thought of someone discovering their college output. Political operatives would rather forget their campus protest days. Even many professors would like to wipe their senior theses from the public record. "My own undergrad writing is a disgrace for someone who became a professional historian," says Elaine Tyler May, president of the Organization of American Historians. Supreme Court nominees should get the same bye. College is the last refuge of the dumb mistake—even if that mistake happens to be an intelligent, thorough, and accurate thesis.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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