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.