National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version


Document Type



Miller, K.A., ed. 2020. Building Honors Contracts: Insights and Oversights. National Collegiate Honors Council Monograph Series. pp 21-53.


Copyright © 2020 by National Collegiate Honors Council.


With roots in a tutorial educational approach introduced by the ancient Greeks and made famous at Oxford and Cambridge, honors contracts in the United States emerged as tutorial arrangements in the late nineteenth century. Early honors programs at Harvard and other universities sought to counter an emphasis on practical training in US higher education after the Civil War with more flexible programs of study, small seminars, and tutorials (Capuana 21–25; Wolken; Repko et al. 28). This curricular reform spanned disciplines and responded to two key changes in education: the late-nineteenth-century growth of graduate education, particularly in the sciences, modeled on German universities that emphasized both research and the consolidation of disciplines (Capuana 19–20; Menand 97), and the early-twentieth-century rise of liberal education in humanities disciplines. These changes caused a marked shift in the US from a belief in the power of standardized vocational programs to fulfill democratic ideals to the conviction that democracy depended upon the development of individual research and other interests or talents, often through the tutorial model (Harvard President Emeritus Charles W. Eliot, ctd. in Unger 178; Aydelotte 12–19; Capuana 19–21, 25). In this pedagogical milieu, Frank Aydelotte pioneered a well-developed honors program at Swarthmore, based on the tutorials of Oxford and Cambridge, which he had experienced as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford (Aydelotte 30–44; Rinn 70–73; Carnicom 49). His tutorial system is commonly acknowledged as the first modern US honors program (Capuana 12; Guzy, Honors Composition 6; Rinn 70; Humphrey 13). This brief historical context for honors education reveals the distinguished roots of contracts and suggests their overlooked pedagogical value. For reasons Richard Badenhausen makes clear, contracts have instead held a suspect and marginalized curricular position, even though the results of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) Census of U.S. Honors Programs and Colleges in both 2012 and 2016 show that approximately three-fifths of programs/ colleges—regardless of institutional type—use contracts (Scott, Smith, and Cognard-Black 208; Scott). That is a sizable number for a form of learning that has earned relatively limited respect. Moreover, NCHC’s publications, conference programs, and listserv illustrate how many practitioners of this pedagogy have developed innovative approaches and best practices that add rigor, flexibility, and oversight to honors contract work.