Why Honors, Why Now?
The landscape of higher education is changing rapidly. Average costs of attending college in the U.S. have doubled over the last 40 years, while tuition at private institutions has ballooned by 2.3 times. As the costs increase, students are under increasing pressure to wring out every ounce of benefit from their college experience. Simultaneously, while college graduates continue to earn about 80% more than high school graduates, real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) median wages for have not meaningfully increased in the past 50 years. Increased automation and offshoring means that more people with more advanced degrees compete for fewer good jobs each year. In response, students overextend themselves to multiple unpaid internships and dozens of professional or social clubs while working on- and off-campus jobs to help offset tuition and living expenses; meanwhile, universities have redesigned their curricula to focus on vocational, discipline-specific knowledge and skills, internships, and resume-building.
Given this changing landscape, what is the role and value of the Honors Program at LMU? Honors asks a lot of its members: to be intellectually engaged, to show up, to immerse ourselves in our education, to create new knowledge and understanding, and to use these opportunities to give back to our communities. What does Honors provide in return?
In last year’s Message I grappled with the enormous challenges of Covid, building meaningful community in a world of remote interaction, and confronting systemic racism within Honors and in the world at large. Next year, I imagine I’ll reflect on how the Honors Program and I have changed one another during my time at the helm. This year, halfway through my tenure as Director, seems like a fitting time to step back and ask who we really are, what we are really doing, and what value our community really offers.
Though it may sound paradoxical given the current employment and educational trends, in the following paragraphs I will argue that it is precisely the sharp refusal to bend to the trends towards vocational training and the “value proposition”—in other words, the insistence on maintaining an interdisciplinary liberal arts philosophy—that makes Honors valuable. This value, I will argue, is not just extrinsic for employment or graduate study, but intrinsic for each of its members.
What is the Honors Program at LMU? Perhaps we can say more readily what it is not: The Honors Program is not an honor society; it is not a recognition for a job well done; it is not a club or a fraternity; nor is it a major or minor. Honors appears in LMU’s organizational chart under the department of academic affairs, so we know it is an academic program. Also under academic affairs appear LMU’s various colleges and schools, yet Honors sits apart from them; it is not within the domain of any one college, department, or major. Indeed, in its students and faculty, Honors spans all six undergraduate colleges. Also unlike the colleges, the Honors Program does not confer degrees; unlike departments, it offers no majors or minors. Graduation from the Honors Program does not connote the completion of something, but rather the beginning.
Honors is, on one level, a curriculum—a carefully crafted course of study. At some universities, the Honors Program is only a sequence of courses. Here at LMU, it is much more: Honors is also, perhaps more fundamentally, a curious community. This phrasing can intentionally be read two ways: a group of people who are curious about things, and a group of people who are, themselves, somewhat odd, a bit curious. We are people who seek challenge, who want more from their education, who love learning, questioning, and answering; we are “test pilots” and “engineers,” eager for new modes and methods of learning; we are dreamers, visionaries; we’re people who are not easily satisfied, who pursue things other than and beyond what the university expects of them; we’re internally motivated, restless, driven; we love to “nerd out” on our passions (though we just call this “scholarship”); we are a community of people who are diverse in our skills, interests, and backgrounds, but who are unified in our belief that we have the potential—and the need—to create the world how we want it to be.
Honors is a space for people who thrive in such a community. It is a sandbox, and it is wings; it is a place for academic risks, a deep dive into bizarre and interesting questions that don’t fit in any given academic discipline; it’s a place to continue the fascinating conversations that started in class and that you don’t want to end; it’s a space to express values of justice, equity, curiosity, and an unabashed love of learning. It is a life-long community of friends that will celebrate, challenge, push, and support you.
But let’s talk specifics. What value does this academic program and community offer?
First, the Honors Program offers extrinsic benefits, but not in the way students or outside observers typically imagine. Many people think that Honors is valuable as a signal—a quick and convenient way for employers and admissions reps to see “this applicant a) earned mostly superior grades while also taking a more rigorous course load, b) engaged with extracurricular intellectual opportunities, and c) produced novel research or creative work.” However, this is wrong for two reasons. First, Honors Programs around the world vary greatly in their expectations and programming; there’s no guarantee an employer or admission rep even knows what “Honors Program” on the transcript indicates. Second, Honors is superseded as a signal by clearer signals for the three outcomes named above. High GPAs are better communicated by Latin honors (cum laude, etc.); extracurricular involvement in a specific area is better indicated by membership in various honor societies; the completion of quality research is better demonstrated by the research itself. In other words, if Honors’ only purpose was as a badge of honor, we should hang it up: There are other designations that are simply better indicators of specific accomplishments.
Fortunately, however, Honors is extrinsically valuable not because it shows that you did special things—it’s valuable because it equips you to be able to do special things. Honors is a community that enables curious students to engage with other curious students, learn topics in a range of disciplines from excited and skilled instructors, explore questions from a range of disciplinary lenses, synthesize multiple streams of knowledge to gain insight into the world’s most pressing problems, produce new knowledge and creative understanding, and support each other along the way. Honors hones students’ ability to think critically about the things they read, watch, and hear, and to approach problems from novel perspectives.
In my first-year Honors class last week, as we were discussing the relationship between happiness and expectations, one student said, “well, I was reading about the Vietnamese language, and apparently it does not have conditional tenses, so there’s no way to ask ‘what if.’ I wonder if this accounts for cross-cultural differences in happiness?” This student, by the way, majors in screenwriting, not linguistics. As the conversation progressed along this fascinating new dimension, I could only laugh and remark, “This is why I love Honors.”
The ability to think across disciplines—to connect people who speak different academic languages, use different modes of inquiry, and use different standards of evidence—has concrete benefits. Technical and computational skills are easily automated. More professions are being replaced by machines or AI each year, even jobs previously thought “safe,” such as accounting, banking, data analytics, contract review, or design. In contrast, the ability to think critically and creatively, to see inventive solutions by combining insights from multiple sources or disciplines, to engage in deep empathy, and to communicate effectively to diverse audiences are skills that are less likely to be commoditized, offshored, or automated.
Another concrete benefit of an Honors Program education is the thesis. It is hard to overstate the rarity of the opportunity to conduct original undergraduate research on a question of your choosing with one-to-one faculty mentorship and funding to support it. This aspect of Honors will truly make you stand out. Imagine this: at your interview for your first post-baccalaureate job, your interviewer asks you a question and it’s related to your Honors thesis. Not only can you answer the question eloquently, you can go one step further and teach your interviewer something about their own field. Your Honors thesis will enable you to know something about your field that nobody else has ever known. Who’s going to get the job—the person with an internship, or the person with an internship who can offer novel insight to the company on day one? Who’s going to get admitted to a graduate program—the applicant with cum laude honors, or the applicant with cum laude honors and an Honors thesis under review at a peer-reviewed journal?
So, will Honors help you get into med school, or law school, or a PhD program? Will it help you land internships or jobs after graduation? In short, will the things that you do in Honors help you compete in the post-baccalaureate world? Yes, but not as a signal. Honors will help you compete because it will have provided you with a perspective honed by your interdisciplinary education, an ethic of curiosity instilled by your community, and the ability to create and share novel ideas with the world.
All this extrinsic value is real. And yet, I don’t believe it comes close to answering the question “Why Honors?” The purest value of Honors is not extrinsic, but intrinsic.
The opportunities and benefits Honors offers don’t just make you a better employee or graduate candidate—they make you a better, fuller, more complete person. They help make you a better student of the world; they help you consume information more thoughtfully; they make you less susceptible to fake news, and they make you a better filter and source of information for those around you. They help you appreciate the intricacies, subtleties, and interconnections in the world. They open you to a world of thoughts, ideas, and possibilities. As frequent Honors professor Dr. Brian Treanor writes in his advice to students, a liberal arts education is indeed intended to liberate you:
A good liberal education frees you from yourself or, put another way, frees you to become yourself. It frees you from yourself in the sense that it helps you to overcome your own prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and parochialism. It frees you to become yourself because, in shedding your unreflective assumptions and prejudices, you are able to freely and consciously adopt new ideas and opinions, while simultaneously preserving the old opinions that successfully pass through the crucible of critical inquiry. A liberal education helps you to become a full human being: someone who thinks for themself; someone who loves the good, the true, and the beautiful, even when they cannot (yet) be good, grasp truth, or appreciate beauty; and someone who is conscious of the world around them, their place in it, and their relation to it.
This is, to some degree, an argument for a liberal arts education in general. But what special value does Honors offer within this context?
Simply put, The Honors Program is the standard-bearer for the liberal arts tradition at LMU. Universities worldwide, including LMU, have bent to pressures from parents, students, and employers to maximize the “value proposition” (defined superficially as annual graduation income per tuition cost). They have moved away from a liberal arts model to increasingly resemble very expensive trade schools. Today, it is possible to get a good liberal arts education at LMU, but it won’t happen automatically—in fact, as LMU's five colleges have subsumed more of the LMU core into their own core curricula, getting an interdisciplinary education at LMU has become more difficult. In contrast, the Honors core builds it in—you can’t help but become adept in scientific thinking, deep ethical reasoning, theological and philosophical modes of inquiry, and meaningful analysis of “texts” of all kinds. You will, by definition, have your perspective broadened by a curriculum that brings together in dialogue the concepts, conceptual frameworks, and methods of inquiry from philosophy, theology, history, literature, ethics, and the sciences. In other words, while LMU offers an a la carte liberal arts education if you actively seek it out, Honors packages it for you.
Meanwhile, as the rest of higher education experiments with different modes of education and moves away from lectures, Honors has done this from the beginning. Honors classes are taught as graduate seminars. We don’t have an Honors classroom; we have an Honors seminar room. It features a big, square, wooden table in a room that is bad for lectures and slide shows but perfect for sitting around with a group of interesting people and arguing about a book on race relations and mass incarceration, or hypothesizing about the connections between Avatar: The Last Airbender and the Dao de Jing, or contemplating how best to live a life of meaning.
And, of course, Honors makes sure that all of this is done within a small community of students and faculty connected by a shared love of learning. It may be hard for you to appreciate this now, since most college students have only ever known school, but the opportunity to live and learn and socialize with other curious people is exceedingly rare. Outside of a career in academia (and even then, only assuming you "win the lottery" and end up in a tenure-track job within a department you actually enjoy) chances are extremely low that you will ever again be surrounded by a community of intellectually engaged, interested, and interesting people from whom you can learn and with whom you can study, grow, question, and explore.
University is a massive commitment of time and money. You should wring every drop of value from it. But the true value of a university education is not found in landing a job or an internship—jobs will come and go. Nor is it found in learning the most advanced methods in your field—methods change daily, and you can learn them from a video online. The true value is found in soaking up this extraordinary opportunity to develop yourself as a person, broaden and sharpen your mind, and forge your moral character.
That is what Honors provides. If that sounds like good fun, this is your home.