Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Costs and Benefits in the Economy of Honors

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Costs and Benefits in the Economy of Honors

Article excerpt

As I write, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen two thousand points over the past three weeks, the national unemployment rate hovers stubbornly above 9%, and Congress is playing a dangerous game of chicken during debates about the country's finances--one that threatens the nation's already fragile economy. But the honors community is immune from these worries, right? We have the privilege of dealing with the life of the mind rather than sullying ourselves with more mundane matters like budgets, taxes, and making money. We stand with Socrates, who was well known for his modest lifestyle and equated having no wants with godliness, even using the fact that he was not paid to teach as part of his trial defense.

A quick glance at the NCHC conference pre-program for the meeting in Phoenix would seem to suggest the answer is a resounding "Yes!" In sessions featuring honors staff and faculty, the words "money," "economy," and "economics" are not mentioned once, not a single time in 384 pages. "Teaching" appears in the descriptions of over two dozen sessions. The ethos of honors is grounded in the Socratic tradition that values the inner life over material things; the "good life" is one that is beautiful and just. Thus in his utopian vision for educating Greek youth in The Republic, Plato hopes to cultivate a lack of desire for money in future leaders. Is it possible, then, that there is an irresolvable tension between honors and, for lack of a better phrase, the money project? And is this tension only increasing in light of the country's economic trials and what students hope to get out of their college educations? According to UCLA's annual national survey of incoming students, almost 73% of fall 2010 freshmen indicated that "the chief benefit of college is that it increases one's earning power," which was an all-time high for answers to that particular question ("Incoming College Students").

It would be easy to misread the situation I have just described and imagine that we in honors have simply stuck our collective heads in our books, hoping we won't have to dirty our hands with economic concerns. Certainly the stereotypical version of what we do in the academy turns on an image of absent-minded professors sitting behind ivy-covered walls pontificating on abstract ideas that have nothing to do with "the real world."

However, to be in honors is to be engaged in many different economic arrangements and exchanges. All of us, for example, work in concert with our admissions offices while recruiting high-achieving students whose decisions often hinge on how much money the institution can offer in the form of discounts to tuition and financial aid. Honors programs that tie scholarships more directly to honors admission deal with an even more vexed question: do they love us for our innovative learning or for our money? Those of us who do not have faculty lines in honors must typically "buy" the services of colleagues in other departments or hire adjuncts to staff classes. In fact, we spend much of our time as honors administrators tracking numbers tied to financial considerations: protecting our budgets, cultivating donations, massaging the entering honors class to hit prearranged recruiting targets, keeping up FTEs, and watching endowment returns if we are lucky enough to benefit from such support.

Many industries use language to disguise the fact that the professional relationships within those fields are centered in economic transactions in which individuals pay for a service. Lawyers call their customers "clients," doctors call them "patients," and prostitutes use the term "John." As Catherine McDonald pointed out recently, "the words we use to describe those who use our services are, at one level, metaphors that indicate how we conceive them," and such representations are particularly tied up in questions about status (115). Academics are somewhat guilty of the same obfuscation in calling our customers "students. …

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