Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Major Forerunners to Honors Education at the Collegiate Level

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Major Forerunners to Honors Education at the Collegiate Level

Article excerpt


In this paper, the author explores the major forerunners of the modern-day honors program as well as the purposes behind the formation of honors programs in the United States. Although given much attention in the 1920s with the work of Frank Aydelotte and again in the 1950s and 1960s with the work of Joseph Cohen, university honors programs and colleges have grown so rapidly over the past few decades that we sometimes forget our origins. By examining the foundations of honors programs, this history allows researchers and administrators to better understand modern honors programs in light of the past.


A history of honors education at the collegiate level in this country dates back far before the honors programs most educators are now familiar with and did not even originate in the United States. Indeed, many researchers believe collegiate honors programs to have their beginnings in German and English higher education. Around the late nineteenth century, attempts at honors education began in the United States and then experienced rapid periods of growth in the 1920s and again in the 1950s. Collegiate honors education now encompasses all attempts at differentiated instruction for gifted students, and no real standard exists for what constitutes an effective honors program. However, the founders of modern collegiate honors education in the United States did hold strong beliefs about appropriate education for intellectually advanced students.

Knowledge of the forerunners to modern collegiate honors education is important because "the past is intelligible to us only in the light of the present; and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past" (Carr, 1961, p. 69). Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to describe and analyze the major forerunners to honors education at the collegiate level so that honors administrators and educators may more fully understand the present state of collegiate honors education in the United States.


Antecedents to major movements in history always provide important insights, and this is certainly true for honors education at the collegiate level. The rich and varied history of the honors program dates to more than two centuries ago and includes such predecessors as the Oxford University tutorial system, the Oxford University pass/honors approach, and the implementation of Rhodes Scholarships for American students at Oxford University. Other predecessors to the honors program include the Socratic dialogue, German universities, and the guild apprenticeship (Austin, 1985). The history of the honors movement also coincides with the history of higher education in general and the history of gifted education at the pre-collegiate level. However, none of these influences are as great as those contributed by Oxford University.

Oxford Tutorial System

The tutorial system at Oxford dates far into the university's history, although many changes have occurred over time. Beginning in the sixteenth century, tutors served a social purpose. They acted as personal guardians to young students, instructing them in good manners and controlling their financial expenses. Throughout the seventeenth century, the tutorial system became a recognized part of the university system in that all students were required to have tutors and the role of the tutor began to take the form of an educational advisor. By the nineteenth century, the tutorial system had assumed a primarily intellectual purpose (Bailey, 1932; Mallet, 1927).

The role of the tutor was thus to support a student in his academic endeavors and to guide him towards the successful acquisition of knowledge needed to pass his comprehensive examinations (Aydelotte, 1917/1967). The tutorial system was highly individualized in that students met about once a week with their tutor, either individually or in groups of two or three. …

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