Opinion: Why the Honors College should be very “elitist”

Caleb Owens Headshot Xander Opiyo /THE REVIEW

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It’s a Friday, and two students sit side-by-side in a 300-level class. One sits eagerly, ready to contribute, having lost sleep completing readings that they won’t even be quizzed on. The other, idle, barely awake, disastrously hungover, having failed to complete a single reading all semester, sits vegetative beside his peer, laptop open the entire class.

A professor is returning papers. One student, having poured hours of thought and energy into the assignment, expects an “A” and receives one. Momentarily elated, she glances to her peer — and the first several, ill-formed sentences of an overall bad paper — whom she sees also received an “A,” because that’s how the grading distribution played out.

Ten students gather in an upper-level seminar, based principally on readings of primary materials. A couple of students, having completed the readings, wait with excitement to share their findings in discussion. They instead find themselves in awkward, sometimes silent, often direct conversation with the depressed professor while their classmates eat and drool around them.

Why, we might ask of these three scenarios, are these students sharing a classroom?

This question is especially relevant as preparations begin to install the Honors College on campus, and as opposition to it — from students and faculty alike — appeals ever-frequently to some nebulous, unfounded and thoroughly perplexing charge of “elitism.”

I would not like to defend against this charge but rather run with it because, in my thinking, an Honors College should be the most “elitist” thing one can imagine, even — especially — at a state school. And this, I claim, would be a very good thing.

Let’s focus momentarily on the term. There is a silly norm in our world — in education, higher and lower; in politics; virtually everywhere — holding that “elitism” is positively bad, some kind of self-evident transgression. Often, the charge of “elitism,” which I take generally to be one of unearned snobbery, gets conflated with simply being better, or smarter, or different. Good qualities become bad for no principled reason, and equality — a notion that is, unqualified, devoid of value — becomes an end unto itself.

The late Christopher Hitchens captures this better than I can. As he writes in “Letters to a Young Contrarian,” his epistolary primer for aspiring young elitists, “One must therefore be willing to risk the charge of ‘elitism’ in order to say that the passive participants in this are often dupes, and that those who run the show are often real elitists.”

These categories map nicely onto the demography of our campus. We have one camp, the “dupes,” who remain “passive participants” (though voluntary ones) in this scandal, dumping $40k annually into a system designed to screw them, and suppressing these unhappy thoughts with ritualistic, inebriated excess each weekend, encouraged by nobody to do anything else. And then we have the genuine elitists (certain faculty), who righteously proclaim themselves opponents to any form of institutionalized elitism as they simultaneously tout elite degrees on their department bios, oblivious to their own contradictions.

Those charged with elitism, as Hitchens tells us, are often those in the right — those who have earned the label in the best of ways. It is only predictable, then, that the first significant effort to ensure students receive their money’s worth, the first major attempt to elevate the intellectual standards of this university in recent memory, would be amenable to the charge.

For an “elitist” Honors College, properly construed, would also be a virtuous one. To be clear, I hardly agree with whatever is currently on the table. Only through slashing Honors enrollment by at least 50% and hiring a full-time college faculty will this thing be justified. And to be clear, most of the current Honors students wouldn’t make the cut, while many non-Honors students would. But let’s entertain my elitist fantasy for a moment and try to find any reason why it would be a bad thing.

I’ve heard, for one, that the “inherently exclusionary” nature of such a college is grounds for resistance. What, precisely, is wrong with an exclusionary system, so long as it’s and genuinely meritocratic doesn’t come at the expense of everybody else’s education (i.e. not based on test scores of incoming freshman, instead treating applicants holistically, prima facie accessible to all)? What, I’m curious to know, is so egregious about having differential standards of excellence at an institution of higher education?

The critique, faltering, then turns to our status as Delaware’s sole major, public research institution. As a public institution, the line goes, we ought to ensure equal opportunity for all of our students, consistent with the ideals of public education. An “elitist” Honors College is in direct tension with this ideal.

This is incoherent. Hardly an affront to it, an elite, humanistically oriented university-within-a-university, intended for humanities and STEM kids alike, would be a recognition of Delawarean dignity, affording those who have earned it the opportunity to receive the most from their college education. It would, if nothing else, attract more Delwareans here, an opportunity to get the rigor of an Ivy (though, I’m told, there’s not much rigor even there these days) for in-state tuition, a radical recognition of how equal opportunity and potential transcend Daddy’s Wallet.

And then there’s the worry about funding a program for a minority of students — probably here on scholarship — with the dupes’ money. My response: The dupes will pay, the non-dupes won’t, the dupes will drink constantly because that’s why they’re here, and they won’t really care where their money goes, a setup no different than the current one. And if they did decide to care, I’m sure they’d be just fine with spending it on those who, equipped with a sterling education, will go out into the world and make a UD degree more valuable.

Above all, an elitist Honors College — with an intentional curriculum, small classes and unsparing rigor — would hold students to the standards they deserve to be held to. It would give them the stimulating learning environment, the faculty connections and the conversations with peers that any willing and able student is entitled to. An “elitist” Honors College — in its meritocratic promise, its respect for student ability and dignity — would in all regards be a radically democratic experiment, an unmistakable refutation of the mediocrity so frequently ascribed to this public institution and most others.

There is a need for this, I think, at nearly all universities, public or private. What makes us distinct is the opportunity, perhaps already lost, to do something about it.

Caleb Owens is the current development officer and the former editor-in-chief of The Review. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Review’s editorial staff. Caleb can be reached at calowens@udel.edu.

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