What’s the Point of an Honors College, Anyway?

Nancy M. West, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 27, 2014

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

(Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle)

This is an interesting discussion of the benefits and some of the challenges of honors colleges by the director of the Honors College at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Her argument is best summarized in her concluding paragraph:

The answers I’ve articulated here all arrive at the same conclusion, which is that the “point of an honors college” is its idealism. Honors represents higher education at its best and most aspirational. (emphasis added)

I think it is very useful to think about how to better realize the potential of honors colleges as ‘third places’ for their universities and the wider community, as West suggests. Coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in 1989, ‘third places’ are environments that people visit voluntarily and frequently, but that are neither work nor home, such as cafes, salons (see our Honors Salon), and the Internet.

I would add that they are public spaces at their best, bringing together different groups of  people – such as students, faculty, and staff – in mutually beneficial ways, something that, as West points out, happens all too rarely.

The characteristics and functions of third places are ideally suited to cultivate honors education as ‘education at its best:’ warm & friendly atmosphere; playful mood; anchors of community; promote lively conversation & group creativity – and the translation of these characteristics into effective innovative, collaborative, and transdisciplinary teaching and learning, scholarship, and engagement.

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