National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Fall 2011


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.


As we learn from Scott Carnicom’s informative and thoughtful essay “Honors Education: Innovation or Conservation,” the lead essay for this Forum, honors education, the brain child of Frank Aydelotte, was designed to “create a more individualized educational experience for gifted students that focused on the creation of knowledge more than its mere reproduction.” From the beginning, honors programs and later colleges have drawn and continue to draw students we often identify as “the best and the brightest,” and traditional measures bear out such a designation (for a general overview of honors students across and within colleges and universities, see Achterberg and Kaczvinsky; cf. Freyman for a prescriptive view of honors students). While we may agree that honors colleges and programs bring in gifted students, do these students alone deserve an education focused on the creation of knowledge rather than its reproduction? Shouldn’t we aspire to this goal for all university and college students? If so, what role might honors colleges and programs have in furthering this lofty aim? Bell argues in general terms for the intervention of honors in undergraduate education, especially at large research institutions (cf. Braid [2009], who takes this idea further and offers suggestions about how honors education could be employed in K–12). In this essay, I would like to point out ways that honors already benefits all students and how it might expand its outreach to the rest of campus.


Even when an honors curriculum fulfills all the general education requirements of an institution, as it does at the University of Oregon, honors students still take most of their courses outside of honors. One of the “Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors Program” is that “program requirements themselves should include a substantial portion of the participants’ undergraduate work, usually in the vicinity of 20% to 25% of their total course work and certainly no less than 15%” (Spurrier 193), implying that honors students typically take at least 75% of their coursework outside of honors. The influence of honors education beyond the perimeters of a particular program is thus substantial as these bright students interact with their peers and teachers outside of honors.

One of the defining features of honors education resides not so much in the stellar array of designer courses we offer as in the students themselves and the kinds of questions they pose. Smart, incisive, quirky, challenging questions coming from students with interests and expertise from across campus do not reproduce knowledge. Rather, they often critique and expose gaps in the basis of that knowledge and have the potential to lead us to new insights and directions of inquiry (for a useful study of the differences between honors and non-honors students, particularly in the area of “deep processing,” see Carnicom and Clump). These talented young men and women bring their engaged and sometimes aggressive curiosity to non-honors classes within and outside of their departments, raising the intellectual stakes for all students; they ask questions that transform lectures and discussions into moments of uncertainty, ambiguity or wonder; and they have the potential to inspire or provoke other students to search for answers on their own. Honors students also meet with faculty to discuss social and political issues outside of class with greater frequency than non-honors students, as noted by Shushok, and thus model greater intellectual engagement as well as acumen.