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.

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Friendship

Strange to say we do not often hear folks talk about friendship, the relationship between two people which can, in some cases, last a lifetime and makes both people so much happier than they would be otherwise. Clearly it is an important relationship, but since it doesn’t involve sex (as a rule) it doesn’t seem to be of interest to a great many people.

Interestingly enough both Plato and Aristotle discussed friendship at some length. Plato wrote a dialogue about it, called Lysis. Aristotle spoke about friendship at length in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says, in part:

“Friendship is clearly necessary and splendid, but people disagree on its precise nature. Friendship consists of a mutual feeling of goodwill between two people.

“There are three kinds of friendship. The first is friendship based on utility, where both people derive some benefit from each other. The second is friendship based on pleasure, where both people are drawn to the other’s wit, good looks, or other pleasant qualities. The third is friendship based on goodness, where both people admire the other’s goodness and help one another strive for goodness.

“The first two kinds of friendship are only accidental, because in these cases friends are motivated by their own utility and pleasure, not by anything essential to the nature of the friend. Both of these kinds of friendship are short-lived because one’s needs and pleasures are apt to change over time.

“Goodness is an enduring quality, so friendships based on goodness tend to be long-lasting. This friendship encompasses the other two, as good friends are useful to one another and please one another. Such friendship is rare and takes time to develop, but it is the best. Bad people can be friends for reasons of pleasure or utility, but only good people can be friends for each other’s sake.

“On the whole, friendships consist of equal exchanges, whether of utility, pleasantness, or goodness. However, there are some relationships that by their nature exist between two people of unequal standing: father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject. In these relationships, a different kind of love is called for from each party, and the amount of love should be proportional to the merit of each person. For instance, a subject should show more love for a ruler than the reverse. When there is too great a gap between people, friendship is impossible, and often two friends will grow apart if one becomes far more virtuous than the other.

“Most people prefer being loved to loving, since they desire flattery and honor. The true mark of friendship, though, is that it consists more of loving than of being loved. Friendships endure when each friend loves the other according to the other’s merit.”

For Montaigne true friendship consists in a blending of wills. One wills what the other wills, wants only what the other wants. I suppose this is what Aristotle meant when he mentions being friends “for each other’s sake.”  It is the blending of two souls into one. The key for both men is that one must be primarily concerned about another person — not oneself.

As I look back on my life I realize that, aside from my wife who is my best friend, I had only one or two “good” friends in the sense that Aristotle mentions. I feel myself very lucky to have had those few since some people never have any at all. And in an age in which friendships are often superficial and made and broken by way of social media we may lose the notion of good friends altogether. That would be very sad indeed. For as Aristotle insists, friendship is essential for human happiness.  But it requires that we come out of ourselves and “admire the other’s goodness and help [that person] strive for goodness.” In a word, we must care about another and want that person’s happiness in order to find happiness ourselves. And please note that love plays an important role in friendship. It cannot be found on an electronic toy or in the casual relationships most of us form with the others with whom we work or play — unless we get to the point where we think more about them than we do ourselves.

I have found the friendships I have formed on these blogs to be very important to me and to my own happiness. I am delighted when I hear from my blogging buddies, worry about them when they are silent, and wish them well in whatever they undertake. I realize this is not the highest form of friendship, but, while it may be based on utility to a degree, it is none the less a type that Aristotle could never have imagined and I suspect he would have been only too happy to discuss it at some length!