Monday, February 24, 2014

In Defense of Honors

In Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of his Republic, we see a picture of people chained in a cavern guessing at the order and shapes of shadows that pass on the wall in front of them.  They give each other awards and honors for who is best at this guessing game, but when one fortunate soul is freed from the cave and sees the true light of the sun, he no longer has any regard for the prizes that were given among the prisoners for predicting and identifying the shadows.

In this illustration, Plato is quite right.  There is truth, goodness, and beauty to be enjoyed, and once people have tasted of these, they are unlikely to think much of the "Certificate of Participation" or the spelling bee trophy.  Does this, however, mean that we jettison all honors?  Do we get rid of all ceremony and the physical tokens of glory that we like to bestow on one another?  I think not.  Ceremonies of honor have an important role to play, and nowhere more so than in education.

I recently had the opportunity to visit The College of Wooster, where I was to receive one of their Excellence in Teaching awards.  The freshmen have the opportunity each year to nominate a high school teacher who had a particular influence on them.  These nominees are then reviewed by a committee, and this year ten were chosen from across the country.

Recognition of the Excellence in Teaching recipients actually was a small part of the evening.  After a delightful dinner in the elegant Kittredge Dining Hall, an address by an alumnus, and the presentation of the EIT awards, the evening unfolded into a recognition celebration of a great many students.  They received honors, prizes, and scholarships in a variety of disciplines and for many reasons.  For example, there was the Robert G. Bone History Prize.  This was given to a junior majoring in history who best exemplified enthusiasm for learning, unbridled curiosity about life, and unbounded kindness toward others.

Stop.  Read the last sentence of the preceding paragraph again.

There was also the Larry L. Stewart Endowed Prize in Literature.  This was given to a junior English major with a strong academic record who embodied the ideals and spirit of engaged reading and writing in the study of literature.

Enthusiasm for learning.  Unbridled curiosity about life.  Unbounded kindness toward others.  The spirit of engaged reading and writing.

These are the very means by which we approach the true, the good, and the beautiful.  They are also themselves aspects of the true, the good, and the beautiful to be enjoyed in their own right.  For this reason, we properly honor those who exemplify and embody them.  Awards like these are no mere shadow honors.  They are the public recognition of what human beings do.  They remind their recipients that they are on the right path.  They shine a light on that path for the community who observes these honors, thus inspiring others to take up the journey.  They are not the self-indulgent and meaningless tokens of those trapped in the cave.  They are both the torches that light the way out and the appropriate, necessary, festive celebration of those who have seen the light.

As for the Excellence in Teaching awards, these were given with the same dignity and honor as the student awards.  The teachers were put up in The Wooster Inn, an elegant establishment that prompted me to tweet about my room that made me want to take out a fountain pen and begin inking the first lines of a novel.  On the evening of our arrival, we enjoyed hors d'oeuvres with faculty members and the students who had nominated us before the dinner celebration.  The following day we were treated to a tour of the campus, the opportunity to visit a class with our students, and lunch in the faculty dining area of Lowry Hall.  The entire event was coordinated by Dr. Hayden Schilling, whose hospitality alone was a significant honor.

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