Defining Honors Culture - Page 2
One striking illustration of honors culture is that this essay is written by a mathematician, not an anthropologist, sociologist, or historian. My attempt to define a culture despite my lack of formal training in fields that normally might be devoted to such investigations illustrates one cornerstone (I leave the other three to my respondents and critics) that is common to the culture of honors: taking intellectual risks. My predecessor at the University of Maine, Dr. Ruth Nadelhaft, sponsored a series of all-university luncheon discussions about best educational practices with the title “Risky Business.” All administrators, faculty, and students in honors are involved in this kind of risky business.
When talking with perspective honors students, I often find myself coming back to the term “motivation.” It might be tempting to say that honors is a culture composed of motivated individuals. However, after reflecting upon the individuals who most embody what I think of as honors culture, I contend that motivation is not the dominant trait. We surely all know students who are motivated, either by internal or external factors, but are not at all interested in taking risks or in stepping outside their comfort zone academically, socially, or culturally. Indeed, I am reminded of students I knew both as an undergraduate and as a faculty member who were highly motivated to be the best whatever (fill in the blank with your favorite profession) but did not want to take any course that might somehow thwart or slow their progress toward their job/graduate school/professional school. They were motivated by their personal economies and expended all their capital (time, emotion, mental energy) on their prescribed goals, looking for the least expensive (easiest grades, least amount of time, least challenging) way to satisfy any additional requirements. In my experience, such students are least likely to be interested in the challenges of honors education.
Students in honors are willing to take intellectual risks both in their discipline and outside of it; they enjoy the challenge. They are the exceptional English students who revel in discussions of quantum mechanics and the outstanding engineers who can’t read enough history. Their personal economies guide them to get the most out of their undergraduate education. Sure, sometimes they are bored or turned off by topics they view as irrelevant to their education, but they are willing to explore and often find themselves surprised at their interest. They’re willing to take the risk.