Date of this Version
Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring/Summer 2012, Volume 13, Number 1, special issue on The Economy of Honors.
As I write, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen two thousand points over the past three weeks, the national unemployment rate hovers stubbornly above 9%, and Congress is playing a dangerous game of chicken during debates about the country’s finances—one that threatens the nation’s already fragile economy. But the honors community is immune from these worries, right? We have the privilege of dealing with the life of the mind rather than sullying ourselves with more mundane matters like budgets, taxes, and making money. We stand with Socrates, who was well known for his modest lifestyle and equated having no wants with godliness, even using the fact that he was not paid to teach as part of his trial defense.
A quick glance at the NCHC conference pre-program for the meeting in Phoenix would seem to suggest the answer is a resounding “Yes!” In sessions featuring honors staff and faculty, the words “money,” “economy,” and “economics” are not mentioned once, not a single time in 384 pages. “Teaching” appears in the descriptions of over two dozen sessions. The ethos of honors is grounded in the Socratic tradition that values the inner life over material things; the “good life” is one that is beautiful and just. Thus in his utopian vision for educating Greek youth in The Republic, Plato hopes to cultivate a lack of desire for money in future leaders. Is it possible, then, that there is an irresolvable tension between honors and, for lack of a better phrase, the money project? And is this tension only increasing in light of the country’s economic trials and what students hope to get out of their college educations? According to UCLA’s annual national survey of incoming students, almost 73% of fall 2010 freshmen indicated that “the chief benefit of college is that it increases one’s earning power,” which was an all-time high for answers to that particular question (“Incoming College Students”).