NCHC Conference: The ‘Revolution’ in Learning Is about ‘Things that Matter’

Taking inspiration from the prominent role of Boston in the America Revolution, faculty from the University of Maine who made presentations at the National Collegiate Honors Council annual conference in Boston sought to define what makes honors education “revolutionary” in contrast to many college courses that have a more instrumental focus.

One answer: the revolution occurs within bright students who are seriously evaluating their beliefs in light of great texts and new experiences, and who share their thoughts, concerns, and criticisms with faculty and with other students who are going through the same process.

Most of what they discuss is the result of a process one professor referred to as “thinking hard about things that matter.”  Ironically, classes that explore and challenge religious beliefs or explore humanity’s relationship with nature or reflect on previous cultural and political revolutions are often dismissed by those who believe that instrumental, or vocational, learning is the thing that matters.

What, more specifically, can honors learning mean for a student.  One young woman in the Maine honors college said that she had come to the university as a “diehard relativist” who was convinced that there was no such thing as objective truth.  Now at the end of her honors career—but not her intellectual commitment—her vocational interests may not have changed, but her basic attitude toward the world—her values—have been dramatically affected; she has discovered, if not absolute truth, then true conviction.  To what extent would this have occurred in a business management class, or a calculus class?

Is this a risk, not only to students, but to parents who send their young men and women to college?  Yes, but honors education embraces an element of risk, subscribing to the idea that young people grow by putting themselves “out there” in the company of peers who are part of the same process of internal and mutual discovery.

Successful honors instructors, therefore, have to extend themselves, to join in the effort to “push the envelope beyond the instrumental.”

One Maine economics professor took on the challenge of teaching an honors course on how we define nature, in the process leaving the “dismal science” behind him along with some of his accustomed hard logic.  Before he was done, he and his class had followed Thoreau’s path in the Maine woods, subjected themselves to an orienteering challenge, and emerged from both the literal and figurative forest of humanity’s relationship with nature filled with new questions, new insights, and deeper understanding.

A professor who taught a course about the Sixties’ revolution found that his students experienced the hope and optimism of “the movement,” saw its impact (especially on white Americans), recognized the “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King as one of the most eloquent expressions of the times—but then had to come to terms with the disillusionment that followed that particular revolution.

What does this teach students who are thinking hard about things that matter?  They may come to believe that each generation needs to dream its own dreams, let them emerge, learn from them, and accept a due portion of disappointment themselves.  It may not be calculus, but it really matters.


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