Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Women in Honors Education: The Case of Western Washington University

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Women in Honors Education: The Case of Western Washington University

Article excerpt

This essay is concerned with women and their educational experience in an Honors Program, and with their educational choices. It deals briefly with the history of women in higher education in the Western world and in the light of this history compares WWU Honors women with historical trends, with men and women students in the institution, and with students nationally in terms of major choices and career aspirations. It is not an attempt to view Honors women's education comprehensively nor to look at WWU women along side Honors women more generally. In fact, it is not possible to do so, as figures on major choices among women in Honors Programs nationally are not available. It does try to answer some specific Questions--What majors do Honors women at Western Washington University chose, and why? Do women regard their general education in ways different from men? More generally, are there uniquely feminine issues as regards their educational choices?

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It is interesting to note that in an arena where there is a great deal of research regarding the character of the Honors experience and the value it adds to a student's education that so little has been done as regards Honors students' choices of majors and their ideas more generally about their educational experiences. There are no aggregate national data on major choices for Honors students, much less for women students. Thus this essay can offer only limited conclusions as regards the experience of Honors students, and it can compare the experience of women only with national figures on women's choices of majors and with male student in the program. It is, however, the author's hope that Honors Directors and Deans will hereby be stimulated to ask questions of this sort of their own programs and to contribute to broaden the discussion on the nature of Honors education.

Any assessment of women in higher education must examine the historical place they have occupied in education more generally in Western societies, and in the case of this essay, particularly with reference to the United States, in both theory and practice. Indeed, it is only after education became higher education in the sense in which that term is now commonly used and understood that is possible to say much that is meaningful about women in education. From the earliest days in the Western tradition, ideas about education dealt with the education of women, and in his Republic, Plato included them in the community and opened educational opportunities for them on the same basis as men. Renaissance Humanists considered the education of women to be pivotal in maintaining the moral health of society, though they always considered women's positions in education and life more generally to be subservient to men's. Vives, Luther, Melanchthon, Erasmus, and More all wrote extensively on the topic.

Of course real world opportunities never keep pace with theory in Europe, and it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that women began to gain access to higher education, and then only in the face of entrenched opposition on the part of men, particularly in terms of training for the professions of law and medicine, where they faced formidable obstacles. It was therefore not until the late nineteenth century that discussions about women had much practical relevance.

In the United States there was less theorizing about education for women until the twentieth century, but opportunities were significantly more abundant. Public education for women, but not higher education, existed from the nation's inception, though the opportunities for women differed from those for men. Dames schools on the English and European model existed in colonial times, providing training in the "practical arts" (e.g., sewing) along side instruction reading, writing, and music. Boston public schools admitted girls beginning in 1769, a practice that spread throughout the New England states after the Revolution. …

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