What is an honors program?

The chairs have given serious consideration to the development of an “Honors Program” as a tool for attracting and retaining high-quality students. How can we develop a program that would bring and keep high-quality students, while not alienating students outside the honors program? What aspects of an honors program would tip the scales for students who would naturally be offered honors admission to other schools with established honors programs? Should we offer a self-developed gen ed program, guaranteed participation in URES during the early years, specialized IDIS courses, etc.? What role should Residence Life, Financial Aid, and/or Admissions play in an Honors Student experience?

The College of Arts & Sciences at our institution is thinking broadly about ways to improve in our academic program.  One of the questions being considered is the possibility of developing an Honors Program.  I think we need to start by defining what we mean by an “Honors Program”.  I think that definition needs to go far beyond a list of courses.  It should address what we think participants should be able to do by the end of the program, or how they would be different upon graduation than students who pursued the standard program.  In short, we need to consider the outputs, not just the inputs in such a program.

For a long time, I was interested in changing our curriculum or at least the ethos behind our curriculum to what might be considered an honors program.  In that respect, I agree with Eric who argues for the entire college being an honors program.  What do I mean by an honors program?  I mean a program which is designed for students who genuinely care about their learning, not as a means to some other end (e.g. graduate study, or a good job/career).  I believe in many respects this vision hearkens back to the original notion of liberal education.  This idea has been described by some as “the caravan,” a collection of individuals, members of the UMW community, who are on a journey of intellectual discovery together.  Some in the caravan have been on the journey for a long time. Some are just starting.  But at least for a while, they are journeying together.  It is  not a competition , but a joint effort to learn.

I regret that I no longer see this as possible.  There are too many students who are not interested in this kind of commitment, or who do not even understand that education can be something more than ‘school’.  They see higher education as 13th grade, just a continuation of their previous 12+ years of schooling.  The goal was to be promoted to the next grade or to be awarded the diploma.  The diploma doesn’t signify anything—it is the purpose of school.  Any learning is seen as incidental (or instrumental).  Is it any wonder that students are jaded by the time they get to university?

Despite my jadedness, I still think that an honors program is worth doing.  But I think it needs to be done as a program, not as the college as a whole.  What would this look like?  And what would be the point?  I think these questions require a great deal of thought and conversation.  My ideal honors program would include only those students (including faculty) who genuinely wished to pursue intellectual discovery.  That introduces  a complication.  Honors programs ‘look good’ in one’s credentials.  They would, therefore, be attractive to many whose purpose as undergraduates is to get into graduate school or a good job.  (I admit to being  suspicious of an honors program as a “tool for attracting and retaining high-quality students” if by high-quality you mean high-GPA.) I’m not opposed to graduate study or a good job.  But I think that students should put those goals on hold while they are in the Honors Program, that they should take a few years off from the real world grind to participate in ‘real school’.   This, I think, would distinguish us from other Honor’s Programs.   I believe that grades are an imperfect measure of motivation for learning, so ideally I don’t think grades should be the sole determinant of entry into the honors program.  There are too many smart people who have no interest in genuine learning.  I would prefer to enlist students who care about learning but haven’t figured out how to get excellent grades yet.  (Do we believe that all students are capable of learning, or that some just don’t have what it takes?)  In my honors program, grades would be one part of the application process.  But I would also like to see letters of recommendation from faculty, and possibly interviews with the candidates.

What do we mean by an honors program?  I think this question needs serious thought.  Do we mean a collection of courses that are add-ons to the regular degree program?  If so, what would those courses entail?  I think a program that bolted on three or four ‘honors’ courses and a thesis to an existing major would be honors in name only.  I think a serious honors program would not simply consist of more rigorous courses – harder courses (say Principles of Economics for Majors instead of as a Gen Ed, or Intermediate Theory with Calculus), but deeper courses:  Courses that make one think more deeply and perhaps orthogonally about connections that don’t stop at disciplinary borders.  I’m struggling to articulate what I mean, but harder and deeper don’t mean the same thing.  The former may mean more rigorous in the discipline.  The latter may be more along the lines of what an educated person should know.  I think these course should be interdisciplinary or extradisciplinary.   I think a reasonable honors program might include several inter or extradisciplinary  honors courses and several within-the-major honors courses + a senior thesis.  But I think to do this right will require a lot more work than we’ve done now, starting with a mission statement: What is the purpose of our honors program?  So let’s move forward with this.  Let’s research programs at other schools.  And then let’s create something unique and real.  Count me in.

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1 Response to What is an honors program?

  1. Isaac says:

    Hi, Steve.

    Your mention of students using undergrad as mere stepping stone into grad school rings strongly in my ears.

    I don’t know if an ‘honors’ program is one that should encourage students to continue extradisciplinary/cross-disciplinary study, when that is precisely what a liberal arts education is supposed to be. Besides, can’t motivated students create their own majors and courses of study if they wish to pursue this route? Can’t we just make that easier to do for those who desire it?

    I wonder if one of the weaknesses of the four year liberal arts program is that it may do disservice to students who decide to attend graduate school well after they start into a liberal arts undergrad education in good faith. The breadth of a liberal arts education exposes the student to many streams of thought, many perspectives on the world, one or two of which the student may find deeply compelling, leading to a major. I fear, however, that except for the smartest and/or most motivated students, the liberal arts educational philosophy – which remains in force within the major – becomes a hindrance for the individual who decides they wish to pursue graduate study. It is precisely the myopic delving into the nitty-gritty of the field in advanced courses which allows interested students to prepare themselves for graduate study at a reputable institution. This kind of technical training is mostly missing from major programs at a liberal arts school.

    So, what I imagine a good honors program in a liberal arts institution should be is EXACTLY one which provides deserving students with the depth they need to pursue graduate study or ‘good’ careers. That is, an honors program considered as an excursion out of the liberal arts into the technical details of their chosen field(s). Keep the holistic entrance requirements, but make it something that encourages students both to appreciate the liberal arts while incentivizing and facilitating specialization.

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