National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Chapter 1 in Honors Colleges in the 21st Century; Richard Badenhausen, editor

Pages 3–22

ISBN: 978-1-945001-21-5

National Collegiate Honors Council Monograph Series; Jeffrey A. Portnoy, series editor

Published by the National Collegiate Honors Council, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska, United States


Copyright 2023, National Collegiate Honors Council. Used by permission


The American honors college, as it exists in the twenty-first century, is idiosyncratic and an amalgam of centuries old European traditions in higher education with pedagogies and practices that have emerged only since about the 1980s and are particular to America. These disparate influences coexist—sometimes uneasily—in American universities, and yet American honors colleges have continued to have conversations with the past in order to seek wisdom for dealing with contemporary issues such as the democratization of higher education, social justice and diversity, the use of instructional technology, and the controversy between vocational training and liberal learning. Because, unlike departments, an honors college has no particular disciplinary “turf” to protect, it is perhaps the ideal location for intellectual community building, pedagogical experimentation, and uncomfortable conversations. This essay explores the adoption by American colleges and universities of many aspects of Oxford and Cambridge—residential colleges, tutorials, emphasis on classics or “Great Books,” honors examinations and theses—in the construction of honors education in America, and in particular how the more recent manifestation of honors colleges is perhaps the fulfilment of the promise of a holistic liberal education for a greater proportion of Americans. The essay concludes with a comparison of the contemporary honors college with the traditional liberal arts college and judges which has the greater chance of survival.