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.


What does honors offer the university that supports it? On the NCHC listserv this summer, a plea for help came from a colleague whose university was considering dropping its honors program. As budgets grow tight, small, expensive honors programs become vulnerable, and their defenders need arguments that administrators can hear and understand. Most campuswide honors programs offer a general-education-based curriculum. Unfortunately, few campus units defend the idea of general education as a whole although they may fiercely guard their particular piece of it. At many schools, campus-wide honors is one of the few academic programs to be rooted in a part of the curriculum often regarded as a necessary evil; as such, it has few allies. However, if general education is really important, then bright students need and deserve a special course of study in this area that can help them develop the habits of mind and abilities that it has long been intended to produce.

Education is like science in that it is often thought to be worth pursuing because of its practical results. The promoters of STEM education are primarily interested not in the coherence or beauty of scientific theories but in the economic importance of applied science and technology. As the great German philosopher, physicist, and psychologist Hermann von Helmholtz noted in 1862, however, there is a catch to the pursuit of economic success through science: hunting for “immediate practical utility” rarely works. The unspoken argument here is that the pursuit of science for its own sake, unfettered by commercial concerns, ultimately pays off in useful if unexpected ways. Helmholtz’s maneuver has been undertaken by champions of basic scientific research to the present day. Through his interest in physiological optics, for instance, Helmholtz invented the ophthalmoscope in 1851, and his many contributions to mathematical physics and the philosophy of science helped to create the conditions for the revolutions in early twentieth-century physics with their practical outcome, atomic fission. Like Helmholtz, scientists like Einstein, Bohr, Rutherford, and others started out wanting only to discover how nature worked. They did not aim to change the course of the twentieth century.

The same relationship we see between pure and applied science is present in ideas about education. Naturally we hope that education is useful, but, if we educate only for “immediate practical utility,” we get a different result than what we commonly expect from university study. At most four-year colleges, about a third of a student’s coursework is still given over to general or liberal education even though the perennial debate continues between those who see education’s value in terms of its usefulness and those who defend learning for its own sake. In tight economic times, utility and the bottom line loom large in the political and popular imagination. Nonetheless, we offer a general education, especially in honors, without reference to immediate usefulness because we believe that it serves an important purpose.