Somehow, the first three weeks of this semester turned into a bit of a stressful time here in the UF Honors Program. I managed to schedule three public events in the span of ten days, followed by a recruiting trip to Miami. I'm happy to be back mundane things like nominating students for the Goldwater Scholarship and scheduling courses. On Sunday, January 9, we hosted a screening of the film Race to Nowhere at the Harn Museum of Art on campus. This documentary explores the dark side of America's achievement culture (a topic I've written about in this blog) and sheds light on the unintended consequences of our increased demands on our children. Let's put it this way: if an adult spent 7 hours at work, 3 hours at an after-work sports practice, and then went home to work another 4 or 5 hours, we'd call that person a workaholic. But we routinely expect teenagers (and even younger kids) to do this and more so that they will be "competitive" for college and in life.
I know what you're saying: "Isn't the Honors Program part of the problem?" Well, yes, in a way, and that's one reason I wanted to host this screening and have a public discussion about it. I think it's important to set goals and work hard, but it's quite another to do so for its own sake, for the purpose of documenting it for some external body. My own philosophy on Honors education (and college in general) is that it should be for those who want to fully engage in the environment; if you don't want to, that's fine--it's not a character flaw. We had a solid turnout and a lively discussion following the film; I was proud to be able to bring this to the Gainesville community.
Two days later, on January 11, the Honors Program hosted Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, to deliver a public lecture. This was originally scheduled for October 27, 2010, but thunderstorms in Atlanta conspired against us and we had to reschedule. All incoming first-year Honors students received a copy of Dr. Sapolsky's book, A Primate's Memoir, during Preview. This book is the story of his experiences living with a troop of baboons in Kenya and it gives readers a real sense of what a scientist's life is actually like (it's not all lab coats and grant proposals).
Dr. Sapolsky's lecture was titled Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Stress, Disease, and Coping. His work with baboons has revealed great insights into the effects that stress has on humans (we're not so different, we and the baboons), and his talk focused on this. Over 600 people crowded the Rion Ballroom in the Reitz Union, and they were not disappointed. Clear, concise, and funny, Dr. Sapolsky has a real gift for conveying complex ideas to an audience. He answered questions for 40 minutes afterwards and signed every book put before him.
On Tuesday, January 18, we hosted Kathryn Schulz, author of the book Being Wrong. I am using this book as one of the texts in our (Un)Common Reading Program this semester. These are one-credit courses based around a single book; they range from Moneyball to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Ms. Schulz is a leading "wrongologist" who will speak about her work at this year's TED conference. She spoke about error, its place in our lives, and how our failure to accept it as natural leads to all sorts of problems for us. I chose Ms. Schulz's book because, as a former Honors student myself, I know all too well how our students are terrified of making mistakes. This fear usually fades with age (I'm much better than I used to be), but in our youth it can be very intense. In the extreme, it can cause us to play things much too safe, never taking risks that might pay huge dividends. I hope the attendees and Ms. Schulz's lecture gained some valuable perspective.