Challenging Students

I founded and directed the Honors Program at the University where I taught for thirty-seven years. It was my pride and joy and I was privileged to have been able to teach some of the brightest and best students to graduate from that University. One of the innovations I promoted was a Senior Challenge session for the honor students. The students came from all academic disciplines, but I thought it would be good for them to have a bit of a challenge before graduating with honors to test the breadth and depth of their learning.

Initially the sessions were called “Challenge Sessions,” but one of he psychology professors convinced me that this was a bit too stressful for the students so we changed the name to “Senior Dialogues.” I always regretted the decision to change the name because I felt that we were preparing the students for the “real” world and they would face challenges every day of their lives. Why coddle them? But the name was changed in order not to ruffle feathers. One must choose his or her battles.

The sessions involved the student’s major advisor, the director of the program, and another faculty member selected by the students themselves. The questions came from every side on every possible topic. The goal was not to embarrass the student, but to prepare them for interviews after they graduated and also to find out where their weaknesses lay so they could work on developing those weaknesses after they “commenced.” After all, education does not stop with graduation. Or it shouldn’t.

My favorite questions were the following: What three famous people would you invite to dinner? Who were the three greatest human beings who ever lived? What is the greatest problem facing humankind today? And I then winged it from there, asking questions that forced the students into strange territory or asking them to address topics they might otherwise avoid. By and large it went well.

In the nearly thirty years of leading the sessions I always asked the question about the most serious problem facing humankind and not once did a student suggest that it might be overpopulation — which, in my view is the root of all other problems. There are too damned many people on earth and it is creating serious problems! Many of the answers were interesting and even insightful — such things as the unrelenting spread of nuclear weapons, climate change, failure to curtail weapons sales, abortion, and the like. But never the point about human population.

One of the brightest of the students was a psychology major who was finishing her degree in three years in order to go on to graduate school in psychology. I pushed her into foreign territory on purpose because I sensed that her background was a bit narrow. I asked who wrote the Divine Comedy, for example, or what a tetrahedron was or who painted the Sistine Chapel ….that sort of thing. Bear in mind that this was one of my favorite students, but I wanted her to realize that education is not about finding a nich, but about a broad spectrum of knowledge including, but not exclusive to, her major field of interest. After the session (and we all evaluated the performance of the students at the end, though they received no grades) I spoke with her and strongly recommended that she take another year to explore topics other than psychology. She thought about it for a few days and rejected the notion. She graduated and went to graduate school where she earned her M.A. in psychology. Years later she wrote to me and said that she wished she had listened to me because she was no longer interested in psychology and wished she had other intellectual interests while in college. That story is both sad and true. And typical.

Another student, a history major, in responding to the question of who were three of the greatest human beings (male or female) who had ever lived listed his own father first! He then gave a most interesting explanation of his choice, though I had problems accepting the answer myself. In any event it led to a lively discussion of “greatness” — a notion that has come into disrepute of late by many who deny there is any such thing. I wrote his father after the session to tell him what his son had answered and his father has kept the letter to this day!

There were other episodes as well and they almost always involved success stories. The students felt proud that they had survived and they almost always shone in the spotlight. Of all the things I accomplished in my many years of higher education, those sessions were at or near the top. And given that both of my sons graduated from the university and went through the honors program — and the Senior Dialogues — I had occasion to be doubly proud. Those were some great times and some exceptional students who have gone on to make their mark in the world.


12 thoughts on “Challenging Students

    • Thanks, John. It’s one of the things I fought hardest against when I taught. A seventeen or eighteen year-old isn’t in a position to select a narrow field of endeavor. Statistics show that he or she will change their mind several times before they are forty! Broad base and then specialize.

  1. Hugh – congratulations of the thought-provoking activities you provided. I am sure that the former students remember these events, just as you do, and no doubt appreciate them more 🙂 Cheers – Susan

  2. Hugh, you gave good advice to the student who finished early. The opportunities to learn abound. If this had been a financial decision, I could understand it better. But, her lamenting of the lost opportunity is telling.

    I love the questions and I don’t see any problems calling them “challenge sessions.” Sometimes, people overthink issue and talk themselves into offense when know is intended or implied.

    Thanks for sharing some of your history and intentions. Helping people learn is a wonderful occupation.


  3. Dr. Curtler,

    It is likely that I was one of three students in the first “Honors Senior Seminar” you organized at Southwest State College.

    The course enrollment was by invitation, or so we were flattered to be told. There were three students and five faculty members. The students were majors in psychology, history, and sociology; the faculty was interdisciplinary, too — economics, political science, psychology, and philosophy, as I recall. (Notably, each of those students went on to earn a PhD. in their field.)

    The topic was “Marxism”. Both the reading list and the discussion sessions were challenging and substantial. It was exhilarating! It inspired me, both as a student and as a teacher.

    Often I have looked back upon that course as one of the most interesting intellectual experiences of my student career — including five years in graduate school. That benchmark class motivated me to participate in or develop honors courses and programs wherever I studied or taught.

    As a senior member of the university faculty, I served as Director of the University Scholars Program at the university from which I retired in 2012. I taught in the program for decades. That program was, I believe, the last bastion of a liberal arts education at that university. So it remains, in my opinion.

    It is now an Honors College and includes: stringent entrance requirements and top students are invited to apply, a required Freshman Honors Seminar, a cultural enrichment requirement, an array of honors elective courses of which five are required, and an Honors Senior Capstone course. The Honors College serves over two hundred fifty students as of this writing, A bit large for my taste, but…

    I was selected to be the Director of the University Scholars Program largely because I had a vision of what the Program could be and should become. That vision has remained central to the program for the past two decades or more. I had but a small part in its realization, but it is the vision itself which is relevant here.

    The vision of that program, as well as its structure, had its origins in my experiences at Southwest State College (Charter Class), starting with “Ideas in Flux”, several of your “great books” philosophy courses, and the Honors Senior Seminar of which I wrote above. The notion of a Great Books program, of which you often spoke, as well as my study of Alexander Meiklejohn’s formation of the University of Wisconsin Experimental College in the late 1920s, were directly and intentionally influential here.

    By now one detects an underlying theme: Your influence upon your students has been broad, deep, and positive. It has reached generations of students you (and I) will never meet — and mine is but one example.

    Furthermore, your influence and example have been deeply appreciated, as a great many of the posts to Daily Gadfly attest.

    With regards and respects — and gratitude,

    Jerry Stark

    • Jerry. What can I say except “thank you.” It is students like you that make it all worthwhile — as I am sure you know. I attended an honors event at your university years ago and learned a great deal. I daresay I stole a few ideas as well! Take care, my friend.

  4. Interesting reading, I commend your work but why should it be of interest to me? I am 85, with appropriate degrees and virtually unemployable because of age in my field of Business Management. Who wants ab 85 year old CEO/
    Thanks for including me and again I compliment your work
    Tom Bird

  5. Wow. It’s often nice to arrive here = days after a post – to read the queue of comments. Jerry’s brought tears to my eyes – what a lovely comment!

    I wrote mine off line while in the ‘bosque’ – which I now share unedited… Perdon my ramblings:

    Three persons to dinner:
    Audubon, Leonardo da Vinci y Thoreau. The latter I would invite (instead of dinner) for a walk thru the woods if it seemed politically correct to do so!
    Three greatest human beings. Would Christ be considered human? Ghandi. #3? Pres. Kennedy? The next person that my mind keeps returning to as a choice is my father. My father was a pretty-incredible, kind and decent person; there is a monument in his honor (given before he died) in the middle of the woods in the middle of an island along the Mississippi River. Some of the wording describes him as, ‘ an individual of individuals’ – The longer I live and reflect on his influence, I realize what a truly great man he was…(He was also a great tennis player! To be on the receiving end of his ‘first’ serve was like standing against a wall with a dragon about to expel a killer force of energy! Then he would chuckle and offer a compassionate second serve!

    Greatest problems facing humans today? The health of our Planet/Deforestation/Climate – or the choice to ignore or to be apathetic about climate. Technology – Although high-tech is great in many ways, we are giving gadgets too much power/control while we lose the ability to remember simple things like phone numbers or to navigate via north south east west or to add a column of numbers – heaven forbid if they are asked to multiply or divide! Our brains are not given workouts to stay sharp. Loss of morals/core values. 30 years ago I exclaimed to my loved ones, ‘That television is a drug!’ – people use tv to self medicate, but now the internet and phones consume a large slice of people’s attention – some good and some not so good.

    Oops. I answered the questions in the paragraph and then read the next paragraph. I also failed to address overpopulation, and it’s something I often ponder – all of those people needing food and clothing and shelter – and morals. If everyone stopped eating meat and dairy, that would make a big impact. I have weaned away from beef and cheese (boo I miss cheese!) but still use milk for hot chocolate, coffee and making corn bread!

    Then I read more and chuckled about the student naming his father. I wrote my father more than once to tell him how much I admired him – and his attitudes about life, and yes, he was an individual of individuals!

    I’ll close by adding that it would be nice to include you at that dinner table!

    • I always wait patiently for your comments, knowing how difficult it is for you the get the hamsters up and working. But they are always worth waiting for (the comments, not the hamsters!) and this one is especially fine. And I also was deeply touched by Jerry’s comment. What greater prize than tribute in your old age from a very special former student?

      • Hola again, and it’s good to know that you understand when I’m silent – those hamsters down here take lots of breaks.
        I suspect that you can probably predict which posts will prompt an unhibited/spontaneous reply (from me) 0 although there have been times I’ve wanted to toss in my feedback but Life hasn’t allowed me to get back ’round to the post/posts. There was one that was much-more serious, and it deserved to be acknowledged — and if I can coax those hamsters to help carry the boxes from downstairs to the apartment four levels higher, I might have more free time! Alas, the stair workout always takes me back to Jr. high basketball, but I was one of those players who loved the stairs/loved the workouts!

        “Mrs. Denton” was my most-favorite teacher/the one who had a profound influence in my love of the English language, the syntax, and I can still hear her stating, “You will RUE the day….” for that particular-week’s vocabulary workout. I was lucky to have her two different years, and yes, I wrote her later and told her how much I appreciated her.

        Jerry has the grounding to share what many feel, and his comment speaks for many other students who are probably too caught up in today’s world, when hamsters are no longer able to lighten their loads!

        Today I finished moving and the finale was the ‘bathtub boat’ which gets many strange looks when people see it in the back of the truck. They fear I’m going to take it to the ocean and be lost at sea! It’s about to be the ‘planter’ for the apartment — one of these days I’ll be posting more photos of the progress!

        Thanks for allowing me to ramble while I waited on dinner at the nearby restaurant!

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