National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Spring 2002


Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 3:1, Spring/Summer 2002. Copyright © 2002 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


When Sam Schuman and Anne Ponder recruited Chris Dahl and me to join them in developing an “Undergraduate Summit” which might bring together representatives of the major higher education associations, they billed our roles as “conversation starters.” I hope our remarks do just that, not offering fixed conclusions but sparking conversation among those who’ve joined us at the table in Chicago and among those who might become acquainted with the Summit later on. It is more than the accident of friendship that brought us together to get a larger conversation underway. Though all four of us are now leading college and university campuses of different kinds, we came from Honors program backgrounds, and this has colored our thoughts and perhaps even explains why we believe that a broader conversation about undergraduate education today is important. Ostensibly, Honors programs (or, increasingly, “colleges”) are meant to enrich, to challenge, and to meet the differing needs for intellectual stimulation among the members of diverse student bodies. But I think that few of us who have been involved in Honors education have failed to observe that in too many instances they seem intended to “salvage” the quality of an undergraduate degree for a fortunate minority—to provide (for at least those chosen and electing to take part) engaged, participatory learning, close interaction with “real” professors, intellectual community, and opportunities to try a hand at independent scholarship. Where this is, in fact, the case, it is a sad commentary on the state of a baccalaureate education—where it takes a “special” program to deliver to some students what ought to be in the experience of all. To note this takes nothing away from the dedicated Honors program administrators and faculty who conduct the programs. It only recognizes that in such settings they are swimming against the tide in their home institutions rather than with it, beating against the current for the best of reasons.