National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council Vol. 12, No.2 (Fall/Winter 2011). ISSN 1559-0151


Copyright © 2011 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


In Scott Carnicom’s insightful and informative article “Honors Education: Innovation or Conservation?” he adroitly discusses the unusual challenge of maintaining the tried and true pedagogical methods of centuries past in a rapidly changing pedagogical present. The quick succession of teaching philosophies in American higher education over the past few decades creates a certain educational myopia in which any pedagogical principle more than three decades old falls outside the realm of consideration, and its reintroduction becomes an “innovation.” Among his many excellent points is the observation that while these honors innovations have received criticisms for being elitist, they have

. . . historically been an antidote for elitism, democratically leveling the playing field and providing a top-notch education to students outside the hallowed halls of the oldest and/or most prestigious institutions.

Much has been made of the elitist argument, and much in the honors literature goes a long way to countering arguments that attempt to equate honors education with elitism, but I would argue that the case for honors can be strengthened by building on Carnicom’s observation that the innovative/traditional pedagogical methods associated with honors education can level the playing field.

In a 2011 New York Times article, David Leonhardt explores the persistent socio-economic disparities in the nation’s leading colleges and universities. Despite claims to a meritocratic process, the students filling the classrooms of elite institutions are disproportionately affluent. While this observation is hardly shocking given the preparatory educational benefits inherent in an upper-class upbringing, some of the specific observations made by Leonhardt point to an opportunity for honors programs to implement their centuries-old “innovations” to democratize the attainment of higher education success. Only 44% of low-income students with high standardized test scores attend four-year colleges, opting instead for community colleges or no college at all. Furthermore, of those high-testing, low-income students who do attend a four-year school right out of high school, their completion rate is significantly lower than similar-scoring students from the top earning brackets (“Top Colleges” 1).