Tuesday with Tulsa: The Honors Program

Today’s Tuesday with Tulsa blog post was written by Dr. Denise Dutton, Assistant Provost & Director of the Honors Program at TU.

Yesterday I had the privilege of talking about the Honors Program here at TU with some prospective students who were participating in Tulsa Time. It happened to be Presidents’ Day. And so, unsurprisingly, as I described how the Honors seminars invite students to investigate the big question, “What constitutes a well-lived life?” I was struck by the similarities between the virtues that mark great statesmanship and the habits of mind honed by our Honors scholars. In the course of reflecting upon just two of these similarities, I hope to give you a taste of the kind of intellectual community that grows out of our Honors seminars and the larger tradition of living freely and deliberately of which it is a part.

1. Legend tells us that George Washington never told a lie. Historians cite Washington’s reserve, his inclination to listen before speaking, and the discipline with which he carefully chose his words to succinctly express himself, as possible sources from which his legendary integrity arises. Other scholars have argued these character traits served as the virtues by which he was able to build consensus between competing visions of the newly formed constitutional republic. In the Honors seminars, the intensive interaction between the argument at hand and each Honors Scholars’ interpretation and assessment of it, invites students to cultivate these same traits. They listen attentively to one another, distilling the most promising insights from their own, and their colleagues’, observations. At the same time, they courageously challenge those observations that threaten to mislead us, speaking carefully and deliberately so as to disagree with ideas without becoming disagreeable themselves.

As evidence of our students’ success in cultivating this disposition to think both independently and collaboratively, I offer this example. When George Will visited campus recently to deliver the second Presidential Lecture of the year, he met with a group of students for an informal conversation. The table of fifteen students (all but one of whom was an Honors Scholar) included a Libertarian backing Ron Paul, a Republican endorsing Mitt Romney, and a Democrat supporting President Obama. In addition to diverse political orientations, the students represented a wide range of disciplinary interests, from mechanical engineering to communication, from pre-med to economics, political science and philosophy. As the conversation roamed from discussing the Presidential primaries to considering the dangers of what might be described as impatience with politics,” the students expertly avoided the twin dangers of partisan bickering and banal agreement. Instead, they bravely admitted the presence of serious disagreement and collegially undertook to examine the sources and consequences of that disagreement. When Mr. Will observed “that’s a very wise question” he recognized in our students what I regularly observe in Honors seminars: our students’ impressive ability to think deeply and seriously about the competing commitments that inform both our politics and our culture today.

 2. Though Joseph Priestley, an 18th century theologian, is not a name at the forefront of our minds on Presidents’ Day, his influence on the American founding is powerfully captured in Steven Johnson’s fascinating story, The Invention of Air. And Priestley’s diverse interests and exceptional contributions in the disparate fields of science, religion and politics brought him foremost to my mind yesterday as an excellent model of the sort of passionate and interdisciplinary curiosity that characterizes our Honors scholars. Priestley is probably best known as the scientist who discovered that plants emit oxygen. But as Mr. Johnson tells the tale, that discovery occurred because Priestley discussed his experiments and his findings with a group of fellow scientists who gathered weekly at a coffeehouse. Absent Benjamin Franklin posing a question about one of Priestley’s experiments, it’s not clear that Priestley would have recognized the full implications of it. Just as intellectual salons and coffeehouses fueled the innovations and discoveries of the Enlightenment, so too do intellectual cohorts and interdisciplinary networks serve to advance our own discoveries (and our understanding of them) in our digital age.

Honors scholars sustain just this sort of open exchange, both in their seminars and in their social life. For example, on Thursdays at 5pm, the Honors Student Association hosts an informal salon, inviting their colleagues to drop by and discuss what’s on their mind. Readings from disparate classes interact in unexpected ways and surprise with their relevance to our daily lives. In this sort of setting (and others, like Honors movie nights, outings to local performances of Greek plays like Aristophanes’ Frogs which is playing this weekend) not only do ideas gain new life, so do friendships. And to the extent such friendships are friendships of character, not just circumstances, they not only arise in the course of our quest to discern what constitutes human excellence or the well-lived life, they contribute to it as well.

Earlier this month, the Honors scholars hosted a Jeopardy Night. They solicited trivia questions from Honors faculty and recruited Professor Howland to serve as a wittier Alex Trebek. As you can tell from the picture, the evening was a hoot (turns out, Honors scholars know their classic rock lyrics!)

I thought I’d stump the group with a set of questions relating to the rough and tumble world of politics. Alas, they easily recognized Teddy Roosevelt as the president who famously gave a speech after being shot in the chest. And they immediately recalled Adams was the president accused of being a monarchist, and Jackson as the president accused of being a bigamist. The only question I managed to stump them with was this one:

We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought,” said this Leader of the Velvet Revolution as he reflected on the communist era.

Though they couldn’t identify Vaclav Havel as the speaker, I’m confident that through their investigation into the art of living well – as it is advanced through Honors Seminars, Q&A with guest lectures, informally in the cafés across campus and personally between friends – Honors scholars cultivate the courage of mind and hone the skills of public deliberation by which they will avoid falling prey to such a tragic fate.

If you are interested in joining this community of thoughtful scholars and future leaders, please apply to the Honors Program. We work with a rolling deadline and will continue to admit students as long as we have seats in our Honors seminars for them.