Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

You can lead a [person] to college, but you cannot make him think.

— Elbert Hubbard

Okay, I’m back.  What, you didn’t miss me?  I have about six months worth of blogs posts to put up, but let me start with some low-hanging fruit.

I love and I hate teaching Honors students.  I have the privilege of teaching an Honors first year seminar.  Honors students are demonstrably better at the game of school than regular students.   They are invariably brighter than average, the often write and speak better than average.  But they often bring their own set of problems.  Perhaps this is unique to our Honors program which rewards grades over creative thinking.

This semester I taught a group of 6 honors students and 6 non-honors students.  Okay, it’s a small sample, but all honors courses are small samples.  I let students determine what topics in the course area (Economic Inequality) they wanted to study.  I let students decide how they wanted to demonstrate (and let me assess) their learning.  We settled on a collection of writing, speaking and research activities.

Three of the honors students stayed on the narrow path.  They struggled with my not telling them exactly what was required to get a good grade on an assignment.  They asked for rubrics.  They struggled when I asked them to explain what *they* thought.  One case in point: The final assignment was a reflection on what students learned, what they got out of our seminar experience.  One of the honors students gave me a very detailed summary of what we covered in 14 weeks.  What she thought?  Not so much.  Two students worked the course rules to earn an A.  This is not a bad thing, per se, but rather I was disappointed in how they earned their extra credit.  They each went for quantity over quality.  They each did activities that required little thought on their part, but merely attendance. (e.g. having a paper reviewed by the Writing Center staff.)  Did they learn from the activities?  I hope so.  But clearly they were looking to earn the most extra points with the least amount of effort.

What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.

— Henry David Thoreau

The other three honors students took chances.  They thought deeply about what we were reading and discussing.  At least for the time they were in my class, they cared.  They offered ideas, sometimes ideas far out of the mainstream.  They evaluated their own beliefs and in some small cases, changed their minds.  At the least, they ended up with a much more nuanced understanding of the issues.  Three non-honors students did the same.  Why weren’t they part of the honors program if the quality of their thought was as deep?  Apparently, they weren’t as good at the game of school. These 6 students made me proud.  They made the seminar successful, and for that I am thankful.

I worry about the honors students who were plenty smart enough to do what I asked, to take advantage of the opportunity the seminar offered.  They seem to be wasting their time, their efforts, their potential.  Maybe they will be willing to really think when they complete their educations.  Maybe they won’t.

For more quotes about education, see

What Einstein, Twain, & Forty Eight Others Said About School

Image Credit: Karen Bryan, Is the glass half empty or half full? via

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