Choosing a Topic for The Concord Review:
The Beyond English Approach
by David Scott Lewis, Qingdao, CHINA
Much has changed at Beyond English since I wrote my last piece for the The Concord Review blog two years ago. These days, our program tends to be far more focused on issues related to public international law, international relations, ethics, and moral philosophy. We now also place greater emphasis on our three core Advanced Placement courses (aligned to match the "redesigned'' SAT), as well as the over twenty other AP courses that we offer. While the essays that my students generate through our Beyond English Capstone project—like all those essays published in TCR—all exceed a high school performance level, they vary broadly in topic and complexity level.
TCR has published several superb essays on court cases, such as Loving v. Virginia and Tape v. Hurley. I encourage my students to follow in the footsteps of these laudable authors by crafting theses related to court cases, yet I diverge in one essential way: my students must consider cases pertaining particularly to international law. No Roe v. Wade or Plessy v. Ferguson for my students, only international cases, such as the trial of Charles Taylor or the Tokyo Tribunals.
I advise my best students to address cases that are familiar to practitioners within specific areas of international law like international humanitarian law, but that are not necessarily notable in the broader field of international law. Thus, cases such as those involving executive powers, refugees, and asylum seekers—certainly a relevant topic these days—prove suitable. The critical thinking required is akin to the scholarly work produced by a Master of Laws (LLM). These students write and think at such an advanced level that they might easily skip undergraduate coursework altogether and go directly into law school; after all, an LLM program follows a JD (United States) or LLB (United Kingdom). Such students would excel in undergraduate law studies at Oxbridge, for example.
Some students will choose to address topics that require a slightly lower level of research and writing ability; after all, not every high school student is ready for direct entrance into an elite law school. Such students consider cases that have broader applicability and are well known to the majority of international lawyers. Yet, the typical attorney working in a local or national context would likely remain unfamiliar with such cases. A case at this level might include an International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecution. Such cases often have wide-ranging impacts and much broader relevance than the aforementioned specialized cases. In general, I tend to recommend these cases to my more advanced students instead of the aforementioned specialized cases since those cases might require an exceedingly high level of background knowledge. This type of international law essay is similar to the work required of second- or third-year law school students (2Ls or 3Ls), and comprises major writing projects only differentiated from those of law students by their shorter length. Accordingly, Beyond English has adopted a process for selecting substantial writing topics that was originally developed at NYU Law.
At the next level down, one finds topical essays related to public international law. Fitting examples of subjects at this level include a biography of Hugo Grotius or an essay on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The problem with these more general topics is that their popularity often makes it difficult for students to develop novel ideas and innovative theses. The complexity of these essays makes them comparable to those developed at an advanced undergraduate level, such as senior theses.
The papers that require the least amount of effort and thought for my students are those that relate to extremely broad topics in public international law. In such cases, students are generally not attempting to present innovative ideas but to instead raise awareness about topics that have never previously been addressed in The Concord Review. Some examples of this type of paper include essays on the history of the ICC or the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. A fine line exists, however, between papers of this type and the slightly more difficult papers discussed in the preceding paragraph. The complexity of this type of essay may be evaluated at a senior high school or freshman undergraduate level. Furthermore, these papers tend to be shorter, generally fewer than 6,000 words, and yet still exceed the AP Capstone and IB Diploma extended essay requirements. While shorter, these topics often provide an essential advantage over the standard fare of many IB Diploma extended essays by demonstrating a higher level of maturity. Take, for example, an essay on the Special Tribunal for Cambodia (officially the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) that investigated the mass atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge in their infamous ''Killing Fields.'' In my opinion, such a topic should be considered more mature than most of those addressed in IB Diploma or AP Capstone extended essays.
To date, the majority of my students have chosen to write topical essays; the highest-level papers this year were written on international law in the Qing dynasty (Zihang Liu), the history of Amnesty International (Yingying He), and, my favorite, the territorial history of the South China Sea (Yuren Pang). The final topic is particularly relevant given current disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea. (Spoiler alert: The claims made by Beijing are not supported by history.) In my opinion, if a student is not referencing at least fifteen books and a few dozen peer-reviewed journal articles, they have not done their homework.
There are two key reasons for requiring that my students engage with legal texts, whether case law or law review articles. First, such engagement develops a student’s critical thinking skills. Second, such a level of study greatly enhances a student’s vocabulary. In an age when global education is so highly regarded, it is essential that students exceed the standard fare of typical cases covered in AP U.S. Government & Politics (a Beyond English core AP) and develop topics with a greater international focus. Abortion, civil rights, and same-sex marriage are important topics; however, in this author's opinion, the issues addressed in such cases pale in comparison to cases regarding genocide, crimes against humanity, and state-sponsored rape. Think The Prosecutor v. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir. Mature topics related to international law provide far richer areas for research that enable students to demonstrate the highest level of critical thinking.