NCHC Conference: A Student Board of Directors Candidate Speaks Out

Planning a national conference in Boston, the birthplace of American Independence, allowed the National Collegiate Honors Council to go with their instincts and tie many conference presentations to the individual and independent character of honors programs–and honors students.

One such student is Riley Cook from the University of Iowa Honors Program, who is a candidate for the two-year term as student representative on the national board of the NCHC.  It is fitting that the NCHC would include students on its board, and the presence of 600 honors students at the annual conference attests to the interest and commitment to honors students.

We ran into Riley at the conference and realized that his outlook corresponded closely with the overall theme of the meeting: challenging structures in higher education. Other articles about the conference have addressed the commitment of the honors community to insist that a high-level college education must go far beyond the acquisition of specialized skills to include an intellectual focus on “the things that matter” the most in life: a deeper understanding of ourselves and our relation to other human beings and institutions.

Or, to use Riley Cook’s own words, honors “should not just be something to put on a resume; it should be a medium through which students explore their passions on a personal level with faculty and fellow students to their full extent. My main concern is what honors can do intrinsically for students to enrich their academics rather than just be a series of requirements to fulfill.”

Now if you look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you will see the following: “Intrinsic value has traditionally been thought to lie at the heart of ethics. Philosophers use a number of terms to refer to such value. The intrinsic value of something is said to be the value that that thing has ‘in itself,’ or ‘for its own sake,’ or ‘as such,’ or ‘in its own right.'”

Intrinsic values are what we discover; instrumental knowledge is what we receive.  Honors education is about discovery.

Riley expressed concern to us that many institutions lack the commitment to honors education that would allow faculty to teach the smaller discussion courses that promote this kind of discovery.  The reason: faculty “productivity”is a metric used by administrators–and legislators–to assess how efficient departments are, productivity typically reflects only the quantity of students taught, and not the content or individual character of courses.

“Unfortunately,” Riley said, “the quantity of students in the classroom is considered more financially worthwhile than investing in the quality of personalized honors discussion.”

Riley sees this as shortsighted.   “I spoke with a business student in honors at [another] university who informed me that an honors program did not always exist there. The lack of honors directly affected enrollment, significantly enough to necessitate the establishment of such a program.” In other words, honors attracts more students, and these students, in turn, raise the overall quality and perception of the university.

Riley also sees the importance of honors programs in generating support from honors alumni who can become mentors and, in some cases, donors to the institution.

“Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from honors opportunities,” he said. “By offering research opportunities, professors are able to work with valuable research assistants. Even collaborating on a student’s independent research project could influence their research or at least deepen their knowledge of a certain topic in their field. In a university setting, professors are learners, too, and the students they collaborate with may become valuable partners in their field in the years to come.”

After hearing what Riley has had to say, it should be no surprise that honors faculty frequently find themselves in the role of partners or facilitators, and less as the intellectual masters who deliver wisdom from on high.  They, too, engage in the process of discovery.