In fear of excellence

by Carien J. Touwen

A week after our inspiring trip to the international honours conference in New Orleans I ask myself, what has changed for me? The interesting thing about weeks like these are that everything is so concentrated, condensed and focused. All of a sudden your life is about one thing only. That is exactly the affect it had on me. All my ideas and insights, experiences and knowledge of three years ‘pursuit of excellence’ suddenly converged into one vision, one idea: honours is the energy we need to drive the much needed innovation and development of our education. There is no other place where we can do this. Our regular education is too tied up in structures and limitations. Our lecturers and students, from years of bureaucratisation and an overrated sense of accountability, are driven by the wrong quantitative incentives of higher grades, student output targets and financial triggers. In New Orleans I was reminded of an abbreviation for FEAR that surprised me a couple of years back: False Evidence Appearing Real.Image

And I asked myself what is false and what is real when we want to educate our young generation, if we want to improve our education, if we want to grow ourselves. The only way is to focus on the learning process and find ways to motivate and stimulate, inspire and support ourselves and our students. They come into our institutes with high flying ambitions, we are only a stepping stone in their life-long-learning, they leave us and have to carry on in a world that is forever changing and with a speed where there is no room for fear.


Wrap up of City as Text in the elevator passage: you can do honours anywhere!

With that in mind I caught up on the on-going discussion on excellence in the Netherlands. Just this weekend the ministry announced that it will allow universities to experiment with higher fees for education. Some of my friends contacted me via social media: you must be thrilled, more money for ‘your project’…*big sigh*. No I’m not thrilled, in actual fact I’m angry because this is so the wrong incentive for what we are trying to do at the HU with honours. We do not want to set so called excellent students aside in an Honours College where only the best (read: high marks) students and lecturers are allowed in. And when they don’t perform (read: score low in student evaluations) they are expelled. ‘Three strikes you’re out’, as one of my colleagues said when we discussed the matter over coffee this morning.

The same discussion was going on in America. I attended a meeting where we asked ourselves, what makes an honours student? Douglas Peterson of the University of South Dakota had done some research on organisational culture. One of the aspects was the difference between ‘elite and elitist’ in honours education. It turned out that there was a reversed correlation between performance of honours students and feeling elitist. What makes up an elite, one wonders.

To me the answer is not even relevant, based on the outcomes I say, let’s not facilitate one. We might just create an environment in which our honours students and lecturers cannot prosper. Where the necessary innovation can’t run free and structures hinder the spin off to regular curricula. Structure should always follow vision. The question should be: how do we create time and space for honours to grow and to feed into regular education? This might be through separate honours classes, or programmes, projects and student initiatives. Maybe an honours college is necessary to safe guard the vision for a while, maybe some institutes can come up with other models that work. We try to do all these things at HU and I believe we are on the right track!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s