Friday, July 6, 2012

Do we really need honors programs?

Promulgating hearsay is never a great idea, but I am going to do it here at the risk of regretting it later.  In a meeting this morning, where attendees discussed the future of the BYU Honors program, it was related that the President of BYU asked a provocative question:  "Do we really need an honors program at BYU?"  I was as surprised as I can remember feeling in recent memory when the story was related.  Not because I have any real affinity to the Honors program on my campus or couldn't imagine it going away, but because I've long been asking myself that question, but feared raising it publicly because of how others might respond.

The Honors experience at my institution is, no doubt, built upon good intentions.  And, for a student who fully engages in the program, they are likely to have a tremendous undergraduate experience.  This is largely because of the requirements laid out to graduate with University Honors.  In addition to more rigorous course requirements, Honors students are engaged in the arts (and write about these experiences), participate in meaningful service, submit a portfolio demonstrating their academic achievement, and write a thesis in conjunction with a research or creative project conducted in their specific area of study.  In short, because Honors students are required to engage in activities which promote deep learning, they (in theory) learn a great deal more than they would have otherwise and have a more transformative experience.  Most Honors programs also boast of small class sizes and courses taught by the very best faculty on campus.

This all begs the question, why wouldn't a campus want an Honors program?  Aside from the frequent reports that actual experience of an Honors student is likely to be far different than what is advertised in the glossy brochure (for example, on my campus many of the honors courses are actually taught by adjunct faculty, which isn't inherently negative, but far different than what is advertised to students), I can think of at least two often overlooked reasons, as to why any campus should think twice about sponsoring an Honors Program.

The first has to do with resources.  Honors programs, because of all of the opportunities they often afford students (e.g. small courses, subsidized participation in campus arts events, research opportunities), are expensive.  But, a lot of the things we do in higher education are expensive, so this alone shouldn't be overly concerning.  The problem I see has to do with the distribution of resources among students.  On my campus just under 100 students per year graduate with University Honors.  So, not only is the BYU Honors program expensive, but it devotes a large number of resources to a very small percentage of the overall student body (the incoming class hovers somewhere around 6,000 each year).  It may be naive to think that taking the resources devoted to Honors and redistributing them across the entire student body would make a difference (and, I'm willing to admit this); however, these resources could be reallocated to one or more other programs which do have an impact on a much larger group of students.  If nothing else, spending inordinate amounts of money on 100 students a year feels wrong to me in principle.

The second and more important reason I feel the way I do has to do with the implicit message that the mere existence of an honors program sends about the rest of campus (the non-honors portion of campus), which is that everything else we do here is "average," which the larger society (the various Lake Wobegons where we each live) has really taught us to see as sub-par.  As an example, I took the following text from the website of an honors program from another institution just this afternoon.  Consider what it seems to imply about the quality of the courses and learning experiences outside of this particular honors program:

What if your classes were designed around the concept of helping you practice the habit of thinking? Of helping you develop an authentic writer's voice, so that your words have "the feel of you about them," as Irish poet Seamus Heaney once remarked? Of helping you challenge yourself to such a degree that you learn things about yourself that you didn't know existed? If these questions appeal to you, then you've come to the right place.

I can't help but chuckle at the thought of a student reading this and thinking "Do I not practice thinking in my other classes? Maybe I'm at the wrong school."  What I'm getting at here is that when a campus creates an  honors program and then boasts of the great experience it provides, it sends an implicit message to the rest of campus (students and faculty alike) that it is okay for everything else to be less than great.  In the worst cases it provides an excuse for a campus to provide an educational experience to the rest of the student body (which in the case of my campus is a large group) which is lacking in some way.

So, to be more clear, I have no problem with the things that go on in an honors program.  They are educationally purposeful and potentially transformative experiences that we would want for any and all students.  And, it is this point that is at the core of my argument--we should be providing an honors experience for all students on a campus.  Of course, on a large campus like mine that may mean scaling back the honors experience to scale it up to the entire student body.  However, we owe the very best experience possible to every one of the students on our campuses.  Why couldn't every student be required to submit a portfolio, participate in service, write a thesis, and participate in the arts (even if we couldn't make all of their classes small)?  I'm not saying that this is an easy experience to craft or provide, but the institutions that figure out how to do it (or, which already are) will be providing a service to students which the rest of us can only pretend to be offering.

1 comment:

Drake said...

Thoughtful and interesting, as always.