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Message from the Associate Provost

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I was fortunate enough to spend last July leading an Honors study abroad program at St. Hilda’s College at Oxford, UK. A group of honors students from UT joined similar groups from Boise State University and St. Joseph’s College on an intellectual journey we called, The Quest for Meaning. The course that this program was based upon grew, as many things do, from long conversations among a group of colleagues and friends. We discussed culture, politics, and religion — all the things that well-mannered people should not discuss in polite company! It was during these conversations that we began to share our shared sense that college simply wasn’t “college” anymore. Students rarely engaged in genuine conversations about meaningful topics with their professors. Instead, they were either lectured to by faculty or asked to share ideas with their classmates in small group discussions, often over topics they themselves knew little about. Deciding to try to do something about this rather than merely complain, a couple of us set out to design a course that would engage students in serious conversations about “big” ideas.

The Quest course focuses on religion and science as the most important lenses through which modern society filters knowledge. Accordingly, we read articles and books, watched films and plays, and visited various historical sites related to our “quest.” Oxford faculty as well as faculty from other American universities joined us at St. Hilda’s. They included theologians, historians, psychologists, and neuroscientists, bringing a diversity of opinions and a commitment to dialogue as the essential vehicle for finding meaning. As the students who went on the program remarked, the model we used in Oxford bore little resemblance to the rest of their college experience.

If nothing else, teaching this class reaffirmed both my belief in the promise of our students and my commitment to engaging them around questions, rather than answers. It reminded me that the point of college is to learn how to think, not what to think.

All of this is to say two things: First, I continue to be concerned about how we are educating our students. In my opinion, far too much attention is paid to how quickly graduates find jobs and how much money they make, while far too little attention is paid to what they know or how able they are to use their knowledge. If nothing else, teaching this class reaffirmed both my belief in the promise of our students and my commitment to engaging them around questions, rather than answers. It reminded me that the point of college is to learn how to think, not what to think.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I am convinced that this approach to learning is the reason why universities have honors programs in the first place. If we do not support a broad, rigorous, enquiry-based approach to learning, we will have failed in our primary mission. Worse, we will find ourselves surrounded by people who have been trained, but not educated.

We are all made better by surrounding ourselves with smart, well-educated people. So, while “job-based” education might seem appropriate right now, it will, at the end of the day, leave us all less able to solve many of the problems that face our society and our world.

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Dr. Timothy Hulsey

Associate Provost of Honors and Scholars Programs

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.