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Giving the presidential address is a daunting task. For several weeks already, I’ve been receiving emails and phone calls from some of you, asking how my speech was coming along. “Oh, fine, just fine,” I fibbed, as I juggled the innumerable responsibilities back home that I know all of us share in our demanding roles as teachers, learners, and leaders. In past years, the address was a formidable one-hour-or-more event over sit-down dinners or luncheons. But times change. As the conference has grown steadily, year after year, and hours—no, even just minutes—have become precious, the address has had to shrink in length, but happily it has not diminished in significance. I remember how Kate Bruce used a multi-media slide show to make her presentation interactive and engaging in a brief time slot, and Hallie Savage provided insight into the recent history of the NCHC as a balance between stability and change. Last year, Lydia Lyons did a stand-up job of delivering an inspirational and pithy message to an attentive audience in a short session. Now, it’s my turn.
Those of you who know me well know that I’m not much on lecturing or giving speeches, so get ready in a moment to join me in some interactive work. After all, honors has always placed great emphasis on active learning—in all its guises—as a pedagogical strategy that engages both teachers and students in the kind of significant educational experience shown to transform learning and lives, shown to bring out the best of ourselves as scholars, citizens, human beings.
Educating in order to bring out the best is what honors is all about. The very word education, in fact, derives from the Latin root educare—originally meaning “to lead forth” or “bring out from”—which suggests education is not a forcing in of knowledge or any systematic accumulation of facts but rather a bringing forth of what is already present in the learner, a nurturing of potential. It is the act of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the master magician/teacher whose role is to lead the other characters into their best selves, to bring out the best in their natures, whether they align with the lofty, creative spirit of Ariel or the rude figure of Caliban. When he is done, when he has finished sharing the authority (and even some of the power) of his students’ learning, he relinquishes his “rough magic”—the rough magic, we might say, of authentic honors teaching and learning—and the order of the island, his classroom, is reaffirmed. The shipwrecked characters know who and what they are: educare at work, honors at its best.
So now let’s model some of what we mean by education, especially when we qualify the term by saying honors education, which, as any honors program or college mission statement will tell you, has to do with challenge, risk, creativity, collaboration, reflection, inquiry, community—educational qualities that come not from a simple heap of knowledge but from the “rough magic” of shared learning and bringing forth what is already living in us as potential.