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.


Honors Conference to Champion Undergraduate Instruction

Note: This is the first in a series of posts about the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) annual conference next week in Boston.  We will be there, interviewing and reporting on the most interesting sessions and presentations, including those by students.

Almost 2,000 faculty members and students will be in Boston next week to attend the annual conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), where in hundreds of sessions and presentations the value of honors education in our nation’s colleges will be on display.

At least 560 institutions, public and private, will be represented at the conference, which is being held at the Sheraton Boston Hotel.  Honors colleges and programs are transforming American higher education by offering talented students genuine alternatives to the most expensive elite universities.

By emphasizing small classes, honors residence communities, and innovative curricula that are often proving grounds for the best in undergraduate teaching, honors colleges and programs are challenging the higher education system to remain committed to excellence despite demands from those who would emphasize quantity over quality.

The conference theme is “Challenging Structures,” especially those that militate against excellence in undergraduate education.  “We maintain that honors education represents a challenge to the structure of undergraduate instruction,” said Rick Scott, incoming president of the NCHC. “Our gathering in Boston will celebrate teaching, learning, and the honors community.” Dr. Scott is Dean of the Honors College at the University of Central Arkansas.

The featured speaker will be Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, whose famous “Justice” course has long been a favorite among undergraduates.   His thoughts on morality and justice in political life are often contrasted with those of the eminent philosopher John Rawls.

In a world where parents and prospective students are searching for ways to add value to their increasingly expensive college choices, honors programs are the most powerful engine for providing the highest level of undergraduate education within institutions whose overall reputation may not rise to the level of the most elite private schools—and almost always at a much lower cost.

Honors colleges and programs have been a part of the higher education world for decades, but only in the last 20 years or so have public and private institutions turned to honors programs in order to attract and serve the nation’s most talented students.

The NCHC alone has approximately 875 member institutions, ranging from two-year community colleges to leading public universities such as Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas, Auburn, Colorado, Colorado State, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Iowa, Iowa State, LSU, Massachusetts Amherst, Miami of Ohio, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC State, Ohio University, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Oregon State, Pitt, Rutgers, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, UC Irvine, UCLA, U.S. Air Force Academy,  Vermont, Virginia Tech, Washington, and Washington State.

Private universities include American, Baylor, Denver, DePaul, Drake, Drexel, Elon, Embry-Riddle, Fordham, George Washington, Ithaca, LaSalle, Marquette, Miami, Northeastern, Rochester Institute, Seton Hall, Siena, SMU, TCU, Tulsa, Union College, and Villanova.