What do you get when you have a math major, music major, marketing major and ministry major discussing a peer’s presentation on molecular biology? No, not a punch line. Just an average honors seminar of lively, anything-but-average discussion among Northwestern students in the Eagle Scholars Honors Program.
By Kathleen Black, Ph.D.
Every one of Northwestern’s students is set apart by his or her pursuit of a Christ-centered education in a chosen field. Students in Northwestern’s Eagle Scholars Honors Program (Eagle Scholars) are not only challenged with extensive academic rigor, but also encouraged to extend that pursuit to all areas of learning.
The Eagle Scholars program, established in 2002, is a significant financial aid scholarship for high-ability students as well as an academic commitment to advancing Christian scholarship.
The program has distinguished itself among other institutions by its success in making multidisciplinary studies integral to the honors experience. Whereas many college and university honors programs have courses limited to select disciplines, Northwestern includes study in all disciplines in order to develop well-rounded scholars and promote the integration of faith and field in all academic pursuits.
Priority one for Northwestern’s honors students is to be able to integrate their faith with their studies. Not only is this an expression of the 16th-century Reformation understanding of the Christian faith expressed in one’s vocation, but it is also an extension of the college’s mission. In addition, because student giftedness is apparent in many categories, honors students are encouraged to contribute and express their giftedness in multiple venues. The goal is for each scholar to become “well-rounded,” not only excelling in his or her particular major.
This multidisciplinary approach begins with the application process. Northwestern requires that applicants (students with a composite ACT score of 30 or higher or an SAT score of 1320 or higher) answer questions that demonstrate character and depth of thought and submit a paper about any subject of their choosing.
Applicants are also required to submit a sample of their achievement or ability. Students have submitted a wide variety of original artwork, photography, musical compositions, film productions, poetry, short stories and creative prose, as well as mathematical and scientific research, musical and drama performances, and papers on literature and history.
An important aspect of the application process is that a qualified faculty member—an expert in a discipline relevant to the content—scores this submission. For example, if the student sends in a CD with a flute performance, the primary flute instructor scores it. In this way, Northwestern professors from many disciplines become involved in the honors program from the outset and play a role in determining which applicants are accepted.
Many honors programs frequently require students to take specified humanities honors courses or to take honors courses only within their discipline. However, Northwestern requires its honors students to complete honors courses within a minimum of three different disciplines. Northwestern offers honors courses in art, Bible, history, literature, music, mathematics, science, and writing. In this requirement, students dive deeper into their studies, regardless of each student’s specific major.
We’ve developed a new, innovative honors course that epitomizes the commitment to be both multidisciplinary and integrative. This course is an interdisciplinary colloquium in which students do research and presentations on a variety of topics within a common theme. Our recent Honors Colloquium included a study trip to Wales and Ireland.
Another important venue for multidisciplinary learning is the Minnesota Collegiate Honors Symposium. University of Northwestern created this yearly symposium that includes students from other college honors programs in Minnesota. All of the students in Northwestern’s honors program attend this daylong event, presenting their own scholarly work and listening to the scholarly presentations of others.
In Honors Seminar or in Honors Symposium, Eagle Scholars have presented on topics as divergent as:
- The theory of special relativity
- The differences between Erasmus and Luther in the struggle over free will
- Multiculturalism and intercultural harmony
- Blackletter typeface
- Future trends and implications for a flat world
- Hematopoietic stem cell transplants
- Language and culture of the ancient Celts
- The Millennial generation and Christian missions
- The role of contrastive rhetoric in the writing of English language learners
The Honors Symposium is just one way we demonstrate to students that knowledge and research in every field is interesting and worthy of being shared, explored and discussed. As a result, honors students learn to communicate ideas to others who are not majoring in that field, and the listeners learn about many concepts that they may have never studied before.
In reflective essays, students convey their enthusiasm for the Honors Symposium and Honors Seminar:
"The [honors] seminars are stimulating, and I always walk away knowing more than when I came."
"This year’s Honors Symposium was a wonderful opportunity not only to present to my peers what I have been learning, but also to find out what they have been working on as well. The variety of topics researched and ideas presented were outstanding."
"Probably one of the greatest motivators to academic excellence and inquisitiveness has been attending the Symposium and seeing what my peers are doing."
During Honors Seminar, juniors or seniors lead discussions or we have "Open Discussion," during which everyone is expected to bring in a topic for discussion, such as articles or current events. One student wrote, "I think one of the greatest things about Honors Seminar is this exposure to a wide range of ideas and current issues."
Another student shared, "The diverse topics and stimulating conversations of Open Discussion nights at the Honors Seminars caused me to reconsider my perspectives on issues that I normally would not pause to contemplate. I have learned and been changed through that learning."
Integrating faith and diverse learning
However, it is not enough to be merely multidisciplinary. Northwestern strives to integrate faith and learning within this diversity of disciplines. For example, in Honors History and Philosophy of Mathematics, students discuss and articulate a Christian philosophy of math, and in Honors Art Appreciation, students discuss the relationships between art and Christianity. In Honors Foundation of Communications, students discuss the distinctive characteristics of Christian rhetoric, and in Honors Introduction to Music, students debate the association between music and the church.
We have been pleased to see that integration between faith and learning also occurs within their components and presentations. Two examples include “The Alpha and Omega, the Living Word, and the Great Grammarian: God Revealed through English Grammar Analysis” and “Complicated Grief: Proving a Connection between Psychology and the Church.”
Through Northwestern’s multidisciplinary and integrative Honors Program, Eagle Scholars are truly learning to be well-rounded Christian scholars. It is heartening to have students testify to the success of these efforts.
A recent honors graduate summarized it best when he wrote, "My interests have not narrowed, either. Instead, they have expanded so much that I do not even know how to satisfy all my appetites for different areas of learning. I was recently asked what I would want to study if I could expand my knowledge base in one area. I laughed because I did not know what area to choose.”
Kathleen Black, Ph.D., is the director of the Eagle Scholars Honors Program and a professor of English. She is the author of Guide for the Advancing Grammarian: An Exploration of English for Writers and Teachers (2005), Teaching Practical Grammar (2008), and What Bible Sentences Show Us (2009).