Representatives from 16 regional colleges attended the Appalachian College Association Honors Conference, hosted by Tusculum College, on April 4th and 5th.
The Honors Conference brought together faculty and staff members who work with honors programs at their individual colleges to address and discuss issues involving the academic programs for the colleges’ top students. Participating in the conference were colleges from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
The conference began Friday evening with a banquet and keynote address by Dr. Robert Knott, president of Catawba College and former president of Tusculum College. Through Dr. Knott’s leadership, the Civic Arts emphasis and the focused calendar of students taking one course at a time were implemented at Tusculum during his 10-year tenure in the late 1980s through the late 1990s.
When he was at Tusculum, Dr. Knott recalled he and faculty members met for discussions about building an identity for the college, looking at the history of the institution and its name. Tusculum is the name of the town outside Rome where the academy of educator and philosopher Cicero was located. From those discussions came the college’s Civic Arts curriculum and calendar. Similarly, those involved in honors programs need to consider the why of those programs, what it is to be ultimately accomplished, he continued.
“I would suggest that a worthy goal for honors programs is the pursuit . . . of theoretical wisdom that leads to transformation of one’s life,” he said.
The term education has lost much of its original meaning in today’s culture, Dr. Knott said. “There is a big difference between informing oneself and getting knowledge,” he continued, adding that the root word for education means to draw out skills that an individual already has.
As Cicero described it, education in its truest sense is drawing out of a student what is already there and helping that individual to develop those skills to build a life around his or her talents and gifts, Dr. Knott said.
Cicero identified three areas of abilities in what he called the liberal arts, Knott continued, describing the three. The first is the art of listening to someone with whom a person disagrees significantly and then responding in writing and oral form to that person. The second is the ability to choose the information relevant to a topic being addressed – the awareness to know where to get the information needed. The third is prudence, to be able to choose what is worthy from what is not, which has a moral component of choosing right from wrong, called “practical wisdom” by Aristotle.
“Practical wisdom is a means to a further end,” he said. “The end of education as Cicero and Aristotle thought is what we call in this day and time, theoretical wisdom. The Greeks called it sophia. Sophia is the wisdom of why things are they way they are.”
Faculty involved in honors programs can lead their students on the path to the development of theoretical wisdom, Dr. Knott explained, and it involves a commitment by the faculty member to be actively seeking theoretical wisdom as well. The faculty member must tell their students, “do as I do and we will learn together,” he continued.
An example of this from popular culture is the tutelage of Luke Skywalker from by Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars trilogy, Dr. Knott said. Obi Wan Kenobi was a strange character in Luke Skywalker’s world. “Good teachers are strange,” he said. “They are strange by introducing us to a world that is strange to us.”
Teaching in this way can bring life changing moments, transforming the lives of students who will never be the same again, Dr. Knott continued. “Honors students and honors faculty on that same journey seeking theoretical wisdom can create experiences that are life transforming.”
Many means exist to seek theoretical wisdom, but what criteria is to be followed for selecting students to join the journey for theoretical wisdom, he asked. Students who are open and capable of taking the journey, have a seriousness of purpose, appreciate the opportunity to learn, possess an intellectual curiosity, and are spiritually aware are among the characteristics that should be considered, he recommended.
On Saturday, workshops were held about gaining perspective from various models of honors programs, global benefits of honors programs, and gathering faculty support for honors programs. Panelists for the workshops included honors program leaders from Bryan College, Campbellsville University, Carson-Newman College, Lenoir-Rhyne College, Maryville College, Montreat College, and Union College. Dr. Melinda Dukes, associate vice president of academic affairs at Tusculum, also served as a panelist. Dr. Nancy Thomas, who heads Tusculum’s Honors Program, coordinated the conference.