Roanoke College’s “Zeno Contest” Enters Its Thirteenth Year

Students pose with Zeno contest trophies, one of which is especially large!

Students pose with Zeno contest trophies, one of which is especially large!

The critical thinking competition is still attracting applicants

Thirteen years after its creation, Roanoke College’s “Zeno Contest” is still seeking entries. This critical thinking competition, by Dr. Hans Zorn, is sponsored each year by the College’s religion and philosophy department and the general education program. The contest is a test of wits and ingenuity that requires students to submit papers which explain a proposed puzzle and provide a solution to it. The student with the best solution is awarded a modest cash prize and an “extravagant” trophy.

The idea was Zorn’s, as he sought to create a contest that promoted critical thinking. Such a contest was deemed necessary since, as Zorn states, “critical thinking is a primary goal of general education and, of course, a primary goal of studying religion and philosophy.” He modeled the Roanoke College version after a similarly named contest that takes place at Notre Dame, where he attended graduate school. After suggesting the concept to Scott Hardwig, then director of general education and current professor of fine arts, the Zeno Contest was born.

The name of the contest honors Zeno of Elea, a philosopher known for his paradoxes. The puzzles themselves, however, are not derived from the same source. Most are well-known paradoxes that have been around for thousands of years.

All entrants are judged according to their ability to both explain the puzzle and provide a solution to it. “Successful papers should explain as clearly as possible the reasoning that generates the paradox itself and the reasoning behind its resolution,” says Zorn. A panel of distinguished philosophy and general education faculty judge all entries on clarity and rigor of analysis.

The only requirement for entering the contest is a “good mind,” and there are a consistent number of entries every year. Last year, the contest received about a dozen applications. Although the majority of participants are religion or philosophy majors, there are still plenty of applications from other majors. Zorn does admit, however, that he would “love to see more students from more programs enter.”

Lindsay Kooiman, last year’s contest winner and a participant this year, is an example of such diversity. The sophomore international relations major entered last year after some encouragement from Dr. Cynthia Atkins, who promised extra credit for those who entered. Although Kooiman was “a shy, scared freshman who, though interested in religion, did not feel qualified to enter a philosophy contest,” she took the puzzle on with determination. Kooiman claims that the problem “immediately came off as impossible to answer,” but that after consideration “the paradox was clear.”

Winning the contest left her “shocked and giddy” particularly because of her competition, which was composed of Senior Scholars, Religion and Philosophy majors, and other “older, smart, intimidating people.” Kooiman described her win as a surreal experience, one that left her eager to enter the contest again. Like her original entry, however, there is a distinct reason behind her decision to participate. “It was hinted that if I win four years straight there will be an even bigger, shinier trophy. And as much as I complain they just collect dust, I'm a sucker for giant trophies.”