Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Notes toward an Excellent Marxist-Elitist Honors Admissions Policy

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Notes toward an Excellent Marxist-Elitist Honors Admissions Policy

Article excerpt

I beg indulgence for an opening anecdote that will perhaps point the issue at hand in a useful direction. I am descended from an honorable line of traveling preachers and car salesmen. As to the preachers, one forebear in particular would occasionally suffer a certain reluctance among the flock when he made his call inviting potential congregants to come forward and receive the benefits of faith, which--to invoke the other side of my family tree--was not unlike the annual call to view new car models back when model change was real and something people could believe in. In order to instill courage among the reluctant, my clerical forebear would use a plant, his infant daughter, placed at the rear of the crowd. If there were no adults willing to respond when the solicitation came, the toddler would make her way forward, at which point my preacher-ancestor would conjure the weak of heart to heed the courage of even a little child. It never failed, or so I am told, and that is pretty much the business we are in now, enlisting the yet-to-be-converted, students and parents as well as attendant "deciders" (to invoke that disagreeably trendy term) on behalf of a larger community of faith, with the end result being, if not salvation precisely, at least making a sale. To that good end, a little show business never hurts (more about that shortly), which gets to the questions at hand when it comes to admissions standards. What are we offering? Who gets invited? How do we decide? How will we know we have made the right decision? Obviously the third question is the most relevant when it comes to honors admissions standards, but we cannot get there without some notion of the other concerns: our product, our customers, and our after-market results.

Starting with the first question, then, what are we offering? One thing for sure, it is not a chance to be just like everybody else, whether for faculty, staff, or--perhaps most importantly--students; here, egalitarianism would be a falsification of our history, which traces its origins to England's ancient universities and then to our colonials' ivy league before making its way to the diversity of institutions where honors thrives happily today, as becomes clear in Annmarie Guzy's useful history. Along the way, honors has lost its patrician pedigree, acquiring a more broad-church, populist identity, at least in terms of the kinds of institutions where the call to honors is being issued nowadays, which is a point Norm Weiner made recently in this journal:

   By the twenty-first century, many people had come to see honors
   education as a way to bring "ivy league education to state
   universities" or to small private (often religious-based) colleges.
   Tellingly, no ivy-league school has a university-wide honors
   program today. Honors has moved from its upper-class, elite origins
   to a decidedly middle-class footing. (21)

As Weiner points out, what we are offering is a way up, "helping our students climb the class ladder" as well as helping them to "realize how smart and talented they are despite their society's assumption that the more something costs, the better it must be" (23). Consequently, honors education is "both elite and middle-class" (24), as he concludes; it is not for everybody (thus elitist), but, for those we let in, it is a decidedly middle-class affair, based on the great promise of this immigrant society of ours that people deserve a chance.

So, we are agreed that honors is offering a kind of elitist entitlement to a flock of middle-class aspirants and strivers who wish to make their way up in "this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours," to quote that apt phrase of Tom Wolfe (55). As his characterization suggests, the good work of elitism is no easy calling, set upon as we are by every manner of mountebank and false prophet, all claiming "excellence" as the basis of their evangel. Our present moment, historically, is--if anything--all the more "tabescent" and mendacious than when Wolfe wrote almost a quarter century ago, and this offers both a challenge and an opportunity. …

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