Honors College: News & Notes: Fall 2020

As I read the interviews in this issue with Honors Scholar Ryan Lee, Dr. Chris Hammons, and a group of Honors College alumni, I realized that not much changes about life. We go on much as before, the good and the bad, with our memories and aspirations, though perhaps we wear a mask more often than we have in the past. It’s true that this past year some of us have suffered more than before. Some of our friends and family have suffered and some have died. I know of a number of friends and family of Honors Scholars and other friends of the Honors College who have died this year and many more have suffered through illness and uncertainty. You probably do, too. These are sobering thoughts. Sometimes the people we love die, and sometimes we ourselves might suffer.

But the memory of Julian of Norwich reminded me to start this second paragraph with a “but”: But, you see, “all will be well.” If you ever wondered how old books like the ones in the Honors College curriculum could ever be relevant, the year 2020 has given you an answer. I hope you are encouraged to return to your old but still living books and, more importantly, the conversations and friendships that are nourished by them. This is not to say that reading and conversing are easy or will make things easy. I don’t think there’s a single book on the reading list, not even among the scriptures, that gives easy answers. But, they do remind us that all will be well.

I’ve also been reminded this past semester of a Greek word that I suspect is one of Plato’s favorites: hikanos. It means “sufficient” or “adequate.” In Plato’s hands, it’s a human word because Plato knows, from a purely objective point of view, that the best we can achieve is merely adequate. All our knowledge, skill, expertise, and striving will always be partial. That doesn’t mean it’s no good. As my dad likes to say, “It’ll do.” And when you hear it in that dad voice, I hope you can feel the dignity in even our partial grasp of things. So, even if we won’t do a perfect job, let’s take up books full of wonder and read, and, where we can, remind ourselves and others of the goodness of life.

Gary Hartenburg
Director, The Honors College
Houston Christian University

Featured in this issue of News & Notes:

Current Student: Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee is a second-year Honors Scholar and an English major at HCU. In addition to his class work, Ryan is an active participant in Baptist Student Ministries and HCU’s improv group, Verbal Winks. He also serves as a tutor in the Academic Support and Resources. Ryan is considering minoring in writing or cinema and contemplating a career in law.

What first drew you to the Honors College?
The Honors College initially looked like an extension of my high school’s pre-AP and AP classes that focused on the classics and “Great Books,” some of which I’d read and others I hadn’t. Given that focus, and my interest in reading and writing, the Honors College seemed like a program in which I’d do well and hopefully meet people.

What have you enjoyed the most about your Honors College experience?
I’ve most enjoyed the people in the Honors College (yay!): Most of my friends on campus are in it with me, and when we’re not mulling over work or discussions, it’s enjoyable and I’d say we get along well. In addition, I like learning from and talking to the professors, who I’d describe as knowledgeable and fun on the whole.

What advice would you give to incoming students?
Don’t procrastinate. That’s still something I’m admittedly working on, but in a couple instances this past semester, putting stuff off was a choice I came to regret: Stress and less sleep were common results of that. Sometimes, “not procrastinating” also means “reading ahead,” so take that as you will.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your studies?
Most obviously, COVID-19 forced my classes to go online in some capacity: This past semester, two classes moved fully online, and two others incorporated online components out of necessity, though my Honors College discussions continued to meet in person. On another note, it caused campus to feel barren at times.

What have you learned about yourself this year?
I learned that I happen to like routine: knowing what I have to do and when/how to do it. (I also prefer face-to-face instruction/interaction, but what can you do?)

What are you most looking forward to next semester?
I’m looking forward to certain Honors College texts next semester (a good bit of Shakespeare, Paradise Lost), and a couple non-Honors College classes (one on sacred poetry taught by Honors College faculty, and Chris Hartwell’s course in the history of cinema).

What are your goals following graduation?
I’m not altogether sure. I’ve been thinking about pursuing a master’s degree, but I’ve also been told that law would be a fitting field to look into given my strengths and interests. I’ll have to see, but if I had to guess, then I’d say that 2023 will likely not mark the end of my education, and it will not mark the end of my learning.

"Phaedo," by Plato

Title: The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David ca. 1782


Plato’s Phaedo is a serious work. It concerns the ultimate matters of death, life, and the soul. It is, in other words, an unfortunately perfect work for our time, which has made those matters more pressing on a global scale than in recent history. As usual in Plato’s dialogues, the figure of Socrates is central, and the method of inquiry is also the usual Socratic question and answer format. Despite this continuity with Plato’s other works, two things make the Phaedo unique: Socrates dies, and his interlocutors are probably among the best in all of Plato.

Many readers have noticed the equanimity of Socrates in the face of death. How can he be calm enough to carry on a lengthy argument about whether the soul is immortal when his own soul will be separated from his body at the end of the dialogue? There is no escaping death, but Socrates, it seems, has learned to trust the logos. When everyone else is in the grip of despair, Socrates remains free. The dialogue’s narrator, the eponymous Phaedo who was present on that last day, says, “I have often admired Socrates, but never more than on that occasion. That he should be able to answer was nothing, but what astonished me was, first, the gentle and pleasant and approving manner in which he received the words of the young men, and then his quick sense of the wound which had been inflicted by the logos, and the readiness with which he healed it. He might be compared to a general rallying his defeated and broken army, urging them to accompany him and return to the field of argument.” Socrates is both doctor and general. Through his knowledge and confidence in the logos, he heals and rallies his friends to not give up on the logos. His knowledge and confidence are what support him in the end, and Phaedo’s final account is that Socrates was, of all the men he has known, the wisest and best.

Perhaps, however, we believe that admirable as Socrates is, it would be impossible for us to attain to his calm and implacable heights. So Plato provides another example for us to aspire to: Simmias and Cebes. These two interlocutors are not hostile to Socrates, but they also are brave enough to ask their honest questions. They are not skeptics, but they do demand good reasons from Socrates to agree with him, which is of course exactly what Socrates wants to see in his friends. At one point Socrates asks Simmias whether he doubts what he is saying, and Simmias replies, “I am not dubious, but I want to have this . . . brought to my own recollection, and, from what Cebes has said, I am beginning to recollect and be convinced; but I should still like to hear what more you have to say.” Here is a paradigm of open and honest inquiry. Simmias does not ask questions because he doubts but because he wants to hear more in order to make a sound judgment on the matter. Perhaps in the end he would have come to doubt what Socrates was saying if he were unconvinced, but he does not begin with doubt. He begins with a desire to hear and understand for himself the truth of the matter.

If we practice a life in which wisdom is prized above all, then like Socrates we will be able to enter calmly into the next life. And if we find ourselves at a loss to explain and understand the soul, life, and death as eloquently as Socrates, then let us begin our journey by looking to Simmias and Cebes, who inquired with confidence and fearlessness.

(By Gary Hartenburg)

Faculty Feature

First, introduce yourself! You are new to the Honors College faculty rotation. Which other department(s) do you teach in? What other leadership position(s) do you hold on campus?

This is my twenty-second year at HBU.  I teach political science.  My interest are in the American founding, Constitutional history, and American politics.  I am the director of the Morris Family Center for Law and Liberty at HBU.  The mission of the center is to promote an understanding and appreciation of American history and our nation’s founding principles.  In a normal school year, we host extracurricular activities for students such as faculty lectures and book groups.  I’ve even taken students to Boston, Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown.  This year has made travel more difficult, but I hope to do more in the future.  Philadelphia is next on our list!  I have been a graduate program director, department chair, and dean.  I enjoy teaching much more than administration.

Can you remember what first sparked your interest in government and history?

I can narrow it down to a specific date—May 28, 1977.  I was seven years old.  My parents went to a movie the night before and came back and told me they were going to take me to see a movie the next day.  They said it was a movie with “space pirates and laser swords.”  It was, of course, Star Wars.  The original Star Wars. None of those terrible prequels or sequels.  After the movie I asked my dad to explain the difference between an empire and a republic.  That investigation led me to a fascination with Roman history, British history, and of course the American founding.  And I still like Star Wars!  Its my favorite movie and was a big part of my life growing up.

Why did you decide to become a professor?

I considered law briefly, but discovered that I really liked studying law rather than practicing it. More importantly, I discovered that I’m not a very adversarial person. In some sense I felt that litigation is the source of social breakdown.  It was probably from growing up in a small town. Conflict was something you worked out with people rather than taking them to court. The law can be a noble career, but it just wasn’t for me. I really liked reading books, discussing ideas, and applying those to current events.  Both of my parents were school teachers, so I guess it runs in the family. My real dilemma was whether I wanted to teach history or political science. I sort of split the difference and focused on political history. I still had to take four semester of advanced statistics in graduate school though!

Describe your teaching philosophy.

It depends on the class.  For lower level classes, I think there is a place for good lectures to introduce concepts and the importance of a discipline. I enjoy teaching freshman government to students who don’t want to be there.  Usually at the end they’ll tell me they learned a great deal, but more important to me, they’ve developed an appreciation for the study of politics. I always tell them that politics is the master science. That’s what Aristotle says anyway. Before we have time for science or literature or business, we have to learn how to live together. That’s the real challenge of humanity. For my upper-division course, I prefer focusing on texts and discussing them in class together, and figuring out why and how they are relevant today. Many of the books I’ve been teaching in my political science classes are already on the Honors College reading list so I feel very comfortable in that environment.

Do you have any current research interests?

I’m working on a book about the Federalist Papers.  It’s really aimed at a high school/college student level.  I attempt to explain the significance of the work and then provide brief synopses of all eighty-five Federalist essays.  I tend to bounce around in my research areas.  My main focus over the years has been on the history and importance of American state constitutions.  Many people, including teachers and historians, often forget that the American state constitutions existed about a dozen years prior to the United States Constitution. There is a tremendous amount that can be learned from reading all those old state constitutions. In fact, in our nation’s history the American states have produced 145 state constitutions. This is because they sometimes replace an old one with a new one. I’ve read all of them. Its really like a diary of the American experience in constitutionalism.

What do you enjoy most about the Honors College curriculum and teaching model?

Getting an opportunity to explore a book with a student. That’s really what college should be. While survey classes still have an important role to play, an increasing amount of information is available online. There are some great educational videos on  YouTube on every topic you can imagine. For students who need guided study, having a college professor lay out learning objectives, a reading list, and providing great lectures can be very helpful. However, it’s a bit like having a coach at the gym. The reality is you could do much of it yourself with a little planning and effort. Really to get the most out of an education, you should read great books, discuss them with others, struggle with ideas, and write a whole lot of essays. Its not only the ability to speak intelligently about the works you read, but the ability to synthesize ideas, to come up with solutions, and to articulate those ideas. With the right education—like the Honors College model—you are a different person when you leave. It’s not just about passing tests and getting grades.

Which was your favorite text to teach this semester in the Honors College and why?

Its difficult to pick because Dr. Hartenburg allowed me to focus on several that are classics in political history. This semester, I enjoyed Thucydides the most. I hadn’t looked at it in several years. I had forgotten how lively it is, and how relevant as well.  And it presents these classic dilemmas that we still struggle with today regarding justice and the use of power. We also forget that the Peloponnesian War provides the backdrop for so much else that is written during that classic Greek age. The Athenians are questioning their very way of life and understanding of the universe. Thucydides presents the backdrop for understanding all of that. It reminds me of a nation that questions its greatness and place in the world.

Have you picked up any hobbies this year in light of the pandemic?

I took classical piano lessons for ten years and stopped about five years ago. I started practicing again, though I could never get past the Advanced Intermediate level of piano. I’m okay with that. I’ve discovered that I really just want to play showtunes, but I don’t have to skill to improvise enough to make it sound pretty.  If it’s not on the sheet music, I can’t make it up. I’d probably better stick with Bach.

Do you have any words of encouragement for students as they head into Christmas break?

Let’s all take a break. I sometimes feel pressure to make use of all my time in a manner that is productive. I should be reading something important. I should be practicing piano. I should be exercising. It’s equally important to make time for relaxation. You have to recharge your batteries. Sometimes I intentionally say to myself, “For the next two weeks I will do nothing.” That usually means just watching movies or piddling around the house. Trying to play Elton John on the piano. You need some time to let your brain rest so you can start fresh again later.

What are you most excited about in the upcoming semester?

I’m hopeful we’ll get past this virus soon, though I don’t think that will happen in the spring. I’m looking forward to seeing students in classes. I think I’m slated to give a lecture on the Federalist Papers for the Honors College. I look forward to that because it’s a labor of love.

Honors College Alumni Feature: A Conversation with Philip Ayala, Christopher Atkins, Josh Wilson, and Konner Childers

This semester, we elected to do something new for our newsletter. In lieu of interviewing just one of our graduates, we interviewed a group of four alumni who have remained fast friends after graduating together in 2017. Although scattered across the country in different states and in various stages of life and careers, Philip, Josh, Chris, and Konner have all managed to stay connected. We met with the group via Zoom in October and the conversation was delightfully familiar.

Chris is a PhD student in religious studies at Yale University. He and his wife, Bailey, have one son, Owen, who is almost two. Philip works as a senior financial analyst for Siemens. He and his wife, Sage, have two daughters, Beckett and Ren. Konner is pursuing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Lastly, Josh is a P4 pharmacy student. They stay connected through video games and Discord servers, but they have also managed to continue deeper conversations about books and film, largely crediting their shared Honors College experience for their enthusiasm for discussion and for enabling a place from which to begin and grow their friendship.

We spent a fair amount of the conversation catching up. Dr. Hartenburg and I shared updates about the Honors College and HCU’s growing campus. The conversation then drifted toward philosophy of education and we reflected on the obstacles that current students are facing in light of the current state of political and social climates. Ultimately, however, we found that what we wanted to talk about the most was what we consider to be the greatest benefit of our experience in the Honors College: friendship.

It wasn’t uncommon for the conversations that stemmed from in-class discussions to be carried over well into the night (often over Whataburger or Taco Bell). We spent countless hours reading books aloud in groups and editing each other’s papers. We crammed for the Markopalypse (as Dr. Markos’s final exam was so affectionately called) into the wee hours of the morning, trying to commit to memory as many facts as we possibly could before the exam later that day. As the first class of students under Dr. Hartenburg’s leadership, we were also unknowingly the test subjects for the new curriculum structure and procedures, some of which has since been revised. But in the end, outside of all of the assignments and work, what we have found we are most thankful for in our Honors College experience is the opportunity to grow as people alongside our peers.  In our pursuit of the truth, we came to recognize one such truth deeply embedded into the human experience—the need for a deeply relational existence, a life spent pursuing such truth with others.

“I think that it goes back to those undergraduate days when we had no external incentive to discuss matters outside of class, but just pure enjoyment and pure interest,” Konner said. “The most fun I had [were] sleepless nights at the Brown, researching more than we needed to or discussing things that had nothing to do with the paper. So the answer, I think, is it would go back to the first semester of what we read, Aristotle and Plato, that the good life involves and entails discursive activity regarding what matters most to being human. That’s what we do, and we have fun. But I think that’s been the root of it – this model of the good life implicitly stuck with us and continues to drive us.”

Toward the end of our meeting, Philip expressed their friendship this way:

“I don’t have much to add, but I [want to say that I] don’t have friends that I am more proud of or respect more than the three guys on this call. [None] who humbled me more or challenged me more. And so I think the big thing is that all three of these people actively make me want to be a better person. I have [other] friends that are good friends, but none that do that for me. That’s how I know that this is a better set of friends than I’ve ever had.”

Philip, Konner, Chris, and Josh reminded me of the importance of true friendship, friendship that stays fixed and steady throughout the ups and downs of life. As we move forward to another year and look forward to a few weeks of down time with our families, I hope that you will continue to actively seek out, and deeply appreciate, the friends in your life who inspire and encourage you. Even in the midst of chaos and what seems like a million unknowns, we can continue seeking truth, in love, with those around us.

The full conversation is available below:

(By Christian Webster)

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