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23 November 2020

Rethinking Honors Education

My small, public liberal arts campus just transformed an honors program into an honors college, helped along with a very healthy donation from a wealthy emeritus professor. Over the years, I have taught a handful of honors sections of a frosh-level course. To be honest, they have been among the most rewarding teaching experiences of my career. They were what I imagined teaching at a liberal arts college would be. The students were enthusiastic. They wanted to be in the room. They interacted with me and with each other. They welcomed challenge--at least as much we humans can actually welcome that kind of thing. They were hardworking. Frankly, though, most of them were no more or less intelligent than their counterparts in non-honors sections, as far as I could tell. I don't have systematically-collected data to confirm this, but the honors students seemed to be disproportionately white, middle-class, and women.

I have found myself asking several questions about honors education (HE) over the years, though:

  1. What is the purpose of HE?
  2. Are honors students better off having HE?
  3. What do HE programs mean for students from marginalized backgrounds, who are not typically in HE?
Here are some answers that I've worked through:
  1. Disappointingly, I've yet to hear why we do HE articulated clearly. Inasmuch as there is explanation, it draws on much of the same mission, values, and buzzwords that are used on our campus to articulate what we do more broadly.
  2. I suspect that the kind of student who would qualify for HE is the kind of student who is likely to be successful with or without HE.
  3. My fear is that HE diverts resources from those who would benefit most to those who need it the least.

What the literature in the sociology of education shows is that education, at least as we currently do it, is not an equalizer; instead, it does social reproduction. Honors education seems like a quintessential example. Imagine how much more of an effect that million-dollar donation could have had for at-risk students (i.e. BIPOC, lower-class, first-generation, etc.). It's difficult for me to justify. While honors students are likely to succeed in college and beyond without much help from us, at-risk students benefit from any help that we can offer.

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