Honors Education: An Antidote to the “Neoliberal,” Vocational Trends in Higher Ed

Editor’s Note: Following the introduction, please see excerpts from a recent post by Joel Hunter, Ph.D.

In his latest post, Honors Education: A Parallel College?, Joel Hunter, Ph.D., continues his response to William Deresiewicz, author of a much read essay at The New Republic and now another at Harper’s.

Deresiewicz believes that higher education has entered “the age of neoliberalism.  Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace — in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending.”

Citing New York Times columnist David Brooks, Deresiewicz notes that higher education used to have, or should have, “three potential purposes: the commercial (preparing to start a career), the cognitive (learning stuff, or better, learning how to think), and the moral (the purpose that is so mysterious to Pinker and his ilk). ‘Moral,’ here, does not mean learning right from wrong. It means developing the ability to make autonomous choices — to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society. To live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.”

Now, he argues, “Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial.” The result, according to Deresiewicz, is that universities ostensibly dedicated to the development of deep critical thinking skills are increasingly functioning as “parallel colleges,” where the true focus is on internships, institutes, entrepreneurship, and vocational disciplines.

From “Honors Education: A Parallel College?”, by Joel Hunter, Ph.D.

Among the disputed points, Dereciewicz argues that the development of a “parallel curriculum” and “parallel college” is symptomatic of higher education’s abandoning its traditional mission to develop in its students “the ability to think and live” for both personal and public enrichment, and instead reorganizing the function of education around neoliberal aims and purposes. I described in my earlier post why I think this analysis is flawed. In this addendum, I will focus on one example of why we should be hopeful rather than alarmed about some of these “parallel” initiatives: the growth in numbers of and accessibility to public Honors programs and colleges.

Honors programs arose in the 1920s and 30s as “Great Books” programs in private colleges. These programs were developed by a group of academics who sought to (re)introduce the liberal arts tradition as the center of American higher education, thus broadening what they viewed as a too-narrow specialization that had emerged in response to the growing economy and culture of industrial scale manufacturing in the late nineteenth century. The growth of the early Honors programs stalled during World War II, the immediate post-war period, and during the Korean War. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union spurred unprecedented federal investment in higher education and reinvigorated the growth of Honors programs.

Honors colleges are an even more recent phenomenon. According to the National Collegiate Honors Council NCHC), a survey of their member institutions showed that of those responding, 60 percent of Honors colleges had been established since 1994. And 80 percent of those had evolved from an earlier Honors program. As of May 2015, there were nearly 200 Honors programs and colleges in the U.S. (NCHC guide). The period of this historical development coincides with the very period Deresiewicz claims that neoliberal values appear triumphant. If he were right that higher education has been debased to a mere instrumental good since the 1960s, the rise and growth of these humanistic, interdisciplinary, “Great Ideas” and “Great Books” programs should not have occurred over that same period. Honors programs and colleges express their mission in the very terms that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared in the age of Reagan, Walker, “Third Way” DLC Democrats, and Obama: learning how to think critically and independently, developing an individual’s personal and intellectual welfare, and creating self-governing citizens with a sense of social responsibility, capable of pursuing the common good and sustaining a democratic society.

Thriving Honors education at public institutions all over the country – Macaulay at City University of New York, Western Kentucky University, the University of Alabama, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, the University of Cincinnati, UCLA, and the University of Arizona – constitutes a substantial counterexample to Deresiewicz’s dire view of the current and future states of liberal arts education.

[Quoting Ted Humphrey, founding Dean, ASU Barrett Honors College]: “For a number of complex reasons, I came to think of it in terms of the habits of mind we were engendering by emphasizing the importance of the Great Books tradition. This perspective makes the reason for focusing on the Great Books the development of specific intellectual dispositions, most importantly, the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly. Further, the Great Books are models of good and effective writing. Although the Great Books provide invaluable insight into human nature and values, into the reasons for and goals of social existence, they are yet more valuable as examples of those habits of mind that give rise to humanity’s self-understanding and attempts to progress to a more fulfilled state. Thus, it seems to me, honors education is better served by taking the Great Books as paradigms of certain habits of mind than as the particular repositories of human wisdom that all must master.”

If a public institution of higher education is committed to serving highly qualified students able to undertake rigorous course work, then the challenge becomes organizing the college under an inclusive conception of honors education.

This task consists of three parts: first, to attract and bring together identifiable cohorts of able and ambitious students who commit themselves to the project of becoming educated members of a democratic society; second, to help them understand that they are pursuing an education for life, citizenship, and career, in that order; and third, to create a set of curricular and co-curricular opportunities that can provide such an education, that is, to organize the resources of the university for those students’ benefit. In sum, the honors dean’s job is to provide the campus with cohorts of superb students and to make sure the campus opens its resources to them.

Given that this precise effort has been duplicated in dozens and now hundreds of public colleges and universities, a handful of which I listed above, we may well ask how Deresiewicz overlooked the phenomenon of Honors education in his article. For it seems to embody the very values he applauds as a “real” education, a vanguard against neoliberal values and ideology. Perhaps Honors education is insufficiently committed to inclusiveness or egalitarian values insofar as it is confined to a particular population in the university, and for whom the university establishes a “parallel college.” Is Honors education elitist?

The answer is, “Could be.” Honors programs and colleges are, by their very nature, selective. They exist in part to enable the academically bright young adults to flourish in a curriculum that often includes Socratic seminars, enrichment opportunities in their disciplinary courses, and access to independent study and projects with faculty eager to engage in “the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds.” My experience has been that many Honors students “will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way” and “care deeply about thinking and learning,” just like their most dedicated faculty.

Does the selective admissions process for Honors programs and colleges institutionalize systemic elitism? Do such programs create an academic upper class, diverting resources and opportunities away from the lower tier underclass, a 99% left outside the gates of the Honors community? This is a serious concern, especially for public institutions of higher education, who are commissioned to serve all of the citizens of a state and contribute to the commonweal. Can the danger of elitism and exclusivity be avoided or overcome? Let’s consider this objection.

An elite enjoys privileges difficult or impossible to obtain by the general population. Having different access to advantages and resources than the masses, elites live and work on an uneven playing field. At a public college or university, if funding and resources are unequally transferred to special cohorts or schools, that appears to be fundamentally at odds with the mission of public institution that exists to serve the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals. The benefits of the education underwritten by the citizens of a state are not (or should not be) prioritized by the good that is served to individuals, but to the common good. Since Honors education is organized in such a way as to benefit a small percentage of the student population, it seems that such programs are illegitimate and inconsistent with public supported higher education.

This objection demands an answer. Is it legitimate to divert revenue obtained from one large group of students to benefit a smaller group of students? Yes, sometimes this disproportionate allocation is a legitimate response to serve the overall public good. Funding diversions are recognized and routinely practiced for students with documented disabilities and students for whom English is not their first language. Disability resource centers and intensive English language programs exist to make a college education attainable for all citizens, including those with special needs. Additional services, such as tutoring and accommodations for attending and participating in amateur sports, are provided for athletes. If institutions of public education are obligated to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential, then differential support from the public treasury is necessary. Are Honors students one of those populations with special needs? Yes, I believe so, and for two reasons.

Honors students are comparable to athletes. Competitive amateur sports in college have been recognized for over one hundred years as a means for enabling able and ambitious students to pursue their physical development, which, unless we take a disembodied view of the student, is a legitimate component of their full potential. Students admitted into Honors programs are the academic athletes of the college or university. If sport athletes are a population of students who require support to meet their special needs, then Honors students are as well. It is clearly a legitimate special allocation of resources to develop “appropriately conceived and rigorous course work for able and ambitious students.” If the analogy with athletes holds, then able and ambitious students are one of the university’s diverse, special needs populations.

The second reason Honors students are a group with special needs in a public institution of higher education is related to the first. The reason institutions of public education are obligated by charter or institutional values to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential is bound up with the point of education itself. Education refines the individual, nurtures creativity, and contributes to the overall commonweal of the state by the general effect of conviviality encouraged within the institution’s society. By these means public education equips students to contribute more fully and richly to the economic and cultural welfare of civil society. If Honors students are not provided with an appropriate level of course work and academic challenge, the public would be impeding its own economic and cultural development by handicapping some of its brightest citizens from achieving their full potential. Whatever private benefits accrue to students provided with accommodations, and the student with a documented disability, the athlete, and the Honors student all surely do, states have long recognized that legitimate justification for reallocating resources to meet these students’ special needs is the important contribution they make to the public good.

Contrary to Deresiewicz’s claim, public Honors education is not a parallel curriculum developed by students for careerist aims or institutions for neoliberal aims. The values underpinning Honors programs are not “encased in neoliberal assumptions,” based on meritocracy, or “generating a caste system.” On the contrary, my own experience, and the experience of thousands of faculty members who teach Honors students speak to the very principle that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared: the “counterbalancing institutions” that advance a set of values in deep tension with, and at important points in opposition to, neoliberalism. He asks “What is to be done?” For starters:

1. Develop and encourage Honors education at all public colleges and universities, including community colleges.
2. Establish broad-based faculty support for Honors education, particularly in institutions with strong professional and technical colleges.
3. Ensure equal access to Honors education by not levying fees or required student expenses over and above those already assessed by the broader institution.

Deresiewicz says that the fundamental problem with efforts to push back against neoliberal education “is that we no longer believe in public solutions.” He says “[w]e only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions.” I do not know who this “we” is, because when I consider the growing movement of public Honors education, I see a strong commitment to a public solution. It may not solve the problems in private higher education, but the residential Honors college developed in public universities has been exported and adapted to some of the most prestigious of private institutions as well. “Real” education, contrary to Deresiesicz’s false alarm, is readily available to all students in this country, in spite of social and political forces that may wish to suppress it.

“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”–Our Response

In one of the most popular pieces ever posted by The New Republic, titled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” former Yale professor William Deresiewicz sharply criticizes the elite education offered at Ivy League and other prestigious universities for producing graduates who have become efficient cognitive machines rather than passionate and creative thinkers with a deep understanding of themselves and the world.

“Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it,” he writes.

“Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit?  I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university.  You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them.  You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing….”

(In fact, Deresiewicz also emphasizes that private liberal arts colleges, apart from the most selective, can still provide an education that invites students to move beyond their proven but allegedly narrow channels to success.)

Our position is not anti-Ivy League—but if Deresiewicz has a point about the class and cultural “bubble” of elite institutions, we believe that there is a middle path that offers highly-talented students a combination of rigorous, smaller classes within the context of large, truly diverse universities.  Public university honors programs vary in the “elite” status conferred upon honors students, but in all cases honors students mix extensively with non-honors students,  spending two-thirds to three-fourths of their class time with them, often in upper-division sections in which the majority of students are more focused and mature.

In some cases, prospective students look at public honors programs as a backup if they do not get into their dream school–an Ivy, Stanford, MIT, Chicago, Vanderbilt, etc.  Aside from lower costs and somewhat less demanding entrance requirements (some are very high, however), public honors programs can also be appealing across state lines because of the tuition waivers and merit awards that many of them offer.   A student in New York state, for example, can look to many excellent public honors options in warmer climates, as well as programs in New York and in neighboring states.

But again, if Deresiewicz is making a valid point with his criticisms, what some students consider as a backup choice–public honors programs–could in the long run turn out to be the best choice.

At the core of Deresiewicz’s polemic is his concern that the intense, instrumental focus on gaining admission to elite universities has forced talented students into narrow paths at increasingly early ages.  By the time the students reach their dream schools (if they ever do so), many have set aside what they would have loved to learn in favor of what they have had to learn, or perhaps master is the better word.  Once in place at Harvard, Yale, or MIT, according to Deresiewicz, they associate with others mostly like themselves, brilliant young people for whom thinking is not for nourishing the truest self but for what the self has been directed to do.

“But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul,” Deresiewicz writes.  “The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that.  Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.” [Emphasis added.]

One of the best things about the large public universities in which honors programs function is that diversity–and not only racial or gender diversity, but true class diversity—guarantees that there will be thousands of students with every perspective imaginable.

Some honors students and certainly many of their non-honors classmates are first or second generation college students who have to work at real jobs while they are going to school, or have to commute and thus deal with their parents and siblings at the same time they are being transformed by their learning.

Even if some honors students in the most selective public university programs have been as over-focused as the typical Ivy student on learning for admissions’ sake, these honors students will still spend much of their time with honors and non-honors students for whom learning has retained its edge—challenges to long-held beliefs, excitement in discovery, thrill in eventual accomplishment.

These are students who have not been jaded by years of stair-stepping their way into elite programs,  but who have, out of necessity or adherence to an independent streak, taken a more circuitous and individualistic path.   Having been less consumed by the college preparation grind along the way, they are more likely to be transformed by the college experience itself, a process that can be contagious.   If Deresiewicz is right, they will be the students who find at least some of “their own answers in their own ways,” or, even better, find that the search for answers never ends.