Final Essay Assignment

America Agonistes

It is December 2026.  America is in turmoil. The contagion of populist politics has swept into every nook and corner of public life. The absence of campaign finance laws has left politicians solely beholden to large corporations and trillionaire donors. The regulations imposed after the Great Recession of 2009 to prevent collusion between Wall Street and the banking industry have long since been gutted and millions of Americans have lost their homes.  There are no jobs for recent university graduates, including most of you, and the burden of repaying college loans to dishonest lenders has left the Z-generation impoverished and embittered.  Global climate change threatens the existence of the coastal areas of Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana.  The Covid pandemic rages on because exorbitantly-paid television pundits have convinced millions of people not to get vaccinated. Under these desperate circumstances, it is no wonder that “the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

As a humble college professor, I am the last person with the competence to put America back together.  However, I can at least attempt to shed light on the turmoil in our once-shining liberal democracy. To this end, I organize a debate in Washington Hall to which I invite three of the most radical thinkers of the past two centuries: Karl Marx, Benito Mussolini, and Anonymous. (For Anonymous, please watch the first 26:30 minutes of this video [HERE] and treat his female sidekick’s views as identical to his views; make sure you start at the beginning of the video).  To add some sparks to the exchanges, I also invite that great advocate of liberal democracy, John Stuart Mill.  However, I am unprepared for the intellectual carnage that ensues.  One after another, Marx, Mussolini, and Anonymous attack Mill for propagating an idealized image of the liberal-democratic system that has prevented Americans from acting on the existential challenges of the twenty-first century. By the end of the debate, Mill is despondent and sobbing uncontrollably in a corner of the stage.

Assignment.    Please choose two of Mill’s (three) critics above and respond to the following questions about the crises of 2026 in an essay of no more than five (5) double-spaced pages:  Which of the two critics is likely to garner the greatest amount of support from a despairing American public for addressing these crises? What strategy will he articulate for bringing America together again?  Despite its potential merits, why will the other critic’s strategy be less likely to garner this support?

Two important notes:

1. In writing your essay, you should address all three questions in such a way that you present a single coherent argument.  This means that you will need to think hard about how your responses fit together.
2. The prompt does not ask you to defend Mill.  If you like, you may allow him to speak, but that is not necessary.  Rather, the prompt assumes that you will explain why each critic finds liberal democracy at fault and calls for a radical alternative.

We will evaluate your essay according to five familiar criteria: 1) Your understanding of the issues involved in the arguments against Mill; 2) The contending claims and strategies of each of your radical thinkers and why one thinker will be more appealing than the other; 3) The clarity and consistency of your response; 4) Your use of readings, discussion sessions, and lectures to back up your points concretely; and 5) Your demonstrated ability to think for yourself.

Please do not conduct any additional research for this essay.

Remember:  The Honor Code applies!  Your essay must be absolutely, totally, irrefutably, and unmistakably your own work.

As always, I have advice.

      1. Read this assignment closely the moment you receive it. It may seem complicated. But if you allow its elements to percolate in your head for a while, you will find that they all flow together.
      2. You have a week to complete this assignment. Do not put it off until the last moment. In fact, since you have a number of other assignments coming your way during exam week, get this assignment done as soon as you can (or at least write a rough draft).

And a few other items:

      1. Visit your TA, the Writing Center, and me to discuss this assignment.  During exam week, I will hold special office hours on Monday from 1:30-3:00 and Tuesday 3:30 to 4:30 (a change in my normal office hours).
      2. We are willing to read and comment upon a draft of your first paragraph and the first sentence of your second paragraph. Otherwise, we will leave the rest of your essay up to you.
      3. Peitong and KJ are looking forward to speaking with their students in the coming days. However, since they will both be very busy, you should only seek the advice and counsel of your TA. As for me, I am willing to talk and/or exchange emails with each and all of you!  I am also available to talk about anything you like.
      4. The Registrar requires us to turn in our grades quickly. For this reason, if you would like extensive comments on your essay after the semester ends, just let us know!

Deadline. You must submit your essay to your TA no later than 12:00 NOON, on Wednesday, December 15. You have an entire week to complete this assignment. Thus, we will only grant extensions if you are ill and provide a note from the health center.

It has been a great pleasure working with you this semester.  Make the most of your privileged remaining years at ND. And stay in touch.

Good luck!