In a contentiously divided world, we need thoughtfully supported, socially relevant arguments more than ever. We need arguments that, rather than reinforcing factional loyalties, seek to understand problems or questions at their granular level, engage competing arguments, make clear claims, and support those claims with the best evidence available. The English word essay derives from the French essayer, meaning to try or test, and the best essays do just that: instead of declaring immutable truths, they enter the fray of debate and offer up attempts to resolve or understand knotty problems. By trying and testing the existing explanations—and finding them insufficient—they develop new frameworks to reimagine the problem. They open themselves to the possibility of counterclaims and pushback, and in so doing, make us more thoughtful about our own positions.
The three essays in this issue of Exposé are strong examples of this sort of argumentation, and the short story offers a narrative version of this sort of thoughtfulness. None of them was chosen specifically for their subject matter, but it isn’t by chance that the essays that impressed the selection committee most with the strength of their arguments also take on some of the most heated and important current debates. The price of entry, as a respected participant, into those debates demands focused attention.
The winner of the Sosland Prize, Lily Lu, examines the roots of prejudice in her essay “Emotional insight: Discovering the Nature of Prejudice Development and Reduction through Emotional Mechanisms.” Implicit prejudice, she argues, seems so intractable because it develops through the socially reinforced emotional mechanisms and beyond cognitive decision making. She concludes that in order to successfully address prejudice we have to appreciate how deeply embedded it is in our cognitive and emotional processing.
The Lawrence Lader Prize winner, Justin Curtis, unpacks the implications of the 2006 Palestinian election that swept Hamas into power in his essay “Why Hamas: The Socioeconomic and Political Foundations of the Islamists’ Popularity.” He explains that while it seems like voting for Hamas was an endorsement of their extremist views, Palestinians were more motivated by Hamas’ promise for socioeconomic improvement and political stability. He argues that the rise of Hamas to power looks like an end to the peace process, but it may, instead, provide a valuable understanding of what a resulting Palestinian state would have to address in terms of good governance and social support structures in order for the peace process to succeed.
The winner of the Science Prize in Expository Writing, Carleen Su, argues, in her essay “Breaking the Cycle: How Increasing Access to Female-Controlled Contraception Can Empower Low-Income Adolescent Females,” that government policies regarding female contraception have unnecessarily reinforced the challenges to self-determination particular to young, low-income women, and such laws must be changed. She argues that by encouraging the use of female condoms, not only would that restore their agency over their sexual health, it would empower them take control over their gender identities and negotiate relationships from a position of strength.
And the David Rice Ecker Short Story Prize winner, Emily Zhao, offers a narrative that grapples with the roles—cultural, familial, and professional—expected of us and the tenuous tether of safety and identity they may or may not provide.
Along with honoring these students and their work, we thank the preceptors in the Harvard College Writing Program who have mentored student writers and shared with us the exciting work being done by their students. We also thank the many Program faculty members who took the time to read and re-read the excellent papers nominated for our Exposé prizes. And we thank all of our student writers whose work showed us that, for them, ideas are vibrantly alive.