Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program Thrives at The University of Scranton

By Daniel Haggerty, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy & Director, Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program, The University of Scranton

Daniel Haggerty, Ph.D. (Photo by The University of Scranton)

Daniel Haggerty, Ph.D. (Photo by The University of Scranton)

The University of Scranton established the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts (SJLA) Honors Program in the 1970s as a response to the proliferation of majors and major course requirements that seemed to threaten a hallmark of Jesuit education, namely, a robust education in the humanities with an emphasis on philosophy. The guiding principle was that such an education, and the habits of mind acquired through it, would serve students well in all career paths, and distinguish them as products of Jesuit education. Based on the results of a comprehensive program review and assessment completed in 2016, the traits targeted are needed across a spectrum of professional fields. Moreover, the SJLA Honors Program successfully develops these traits.

SJLA was established as an alternate way of fulfilling general education requirements at Scranton, making it possible for students to pursue a variety of majors while still receiving the kind of focused education in the humanities characteristic of Jesuit education for nearly five centuries. Invited freshmen students in SJLA typically fall among the top five percent of a given incoming class, as these students tend to have the self-motivation, academic aptitude, and broad intellectual curiosity necessary to thrive in the program. Efforts are also made to identify students of exceptional potential who, though not originally invited, would benefit from, and make meaningful contributions to, SJLA.

Though there have been changes to the curriculum over the past 40 years, the SJLA Honors Program develops bespoke courses designed to meet the following objectives: (1) Comprehension of the history of and major texts in Western philosophy, theology, and literature; (2) Eloquentia perfecta in speech and writing, stemming from a mastery of the elements of critical thinking, reading, and listening; (3) Personal formation – a thoughtful sense of students’ relationship to themselves, to others, and to God – and of the role of cultivated community in personal growth, discernment, and lifelong learning; and (4) The ideal of being men and women for others.

SJLA students take 13 required courses as a cohort over four years: eight in philosophy, two in theology, two in literature, and a course titled The Jesuit Magis, wherein juniors identify unmet needs in the local community, and then organize a Fall Revue to raise funds for a service project they develop, implement, and assess.

Students participating in The Trivium Exercise (Photo by The University of Scranton)

In Ethics, first-year students pursue a meaningful vision of happiness in the light of such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Mill and Kant. The Trivium, required of all sophomores, comprises a study of grammar, logic and rhetoric, demanding eloquentia perfecta in written and oral communication. The course ends with students delivering a speech on Plato’s Phaedrus, from memory, in a public space on campus, wearing togas. Success here generally means the end of all debilitating nervous inhibition associated with public speaking. In Metaphysics, students explore arguments for and against the existence of God, including considerations based on the purported fine-tuning of the physical constants of our universe. The course also requires public disputationes based on Aquinas’ so-called third way of demonstrating the existence of God. Additional select courses in the program include philosophy, politics and economics, art and metaphysics, and classics of Western literature, among others.

The SJLA Honors Program aspires to bring out the best in our students without raising unnecessary anxiety, or to simply demand unreasonable amounts of work from students who, in many cases, are already overworked. We make space for contemplation and friendship. The program includes overnight retreats for sophomores and seniors, as well as multiple social events.

One of the best aspects of the SJLA community is summarized in a senior’s comment made on a recent retreat: “When I started college, I would walk into a new classroom and think, ‘Who is my competition? Who do I have to do better than?’ That was my mentality through high school. I just assumed it was how I had to think to do well in school. I soon realized that I was surrounded by a number of very talented people, and that there was no way I could do better than all of them in anything. But then I realized something else. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t a competition. I was surrounded by so many people with so many talents, and we were all learning from one another. It just took the pressure off. As a result, I have learned more and made deeper friendships than I ever could have imagined.”

Students participating in The Trivium Exercise (Photo by The University of Scranton)

As part of a comprehensive review and assessment of the SJLA Honors Program, surveys were sent to alumni going back to 1980. We had an astonishing 40 percent response rate, receiving 1,240 comments composed of 45,000 words. The result is a lot of useful data confirming the good work that the program does. When asked what beneficial career skills SJLA helped them to develop, 94 percent of respondents said writing; 94 percent said critical thinking; and 91 percent said public speaking. We learned that 70 percent graduated with double or triple majors, such as Biochemistry and Philosophy, Accounting and Theology, or Occupational Therapy and English Literature, with 81 percent going on to earn doctorates or other professional degrees.

A sample of comments from SJLA Honors Program graduates reinforces best what we had hoped the program would achieve:

  • “SJLA is one of the best parts of The University of Scranton. You’ll make incredible friends, have the best professors, have a learning community throughout college, and learn to live well.”
  • “I still think about my SJLA experience with many of my life decisions… I would not be where I am today without The University of Scranton, and more importantly, I wouldn’t be who I am today without SJLA.”
  • “The Program is about learning, seeking truth, and engaging with ideas that have shaped and continue to shape our world. I am truly grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of the SJLA community, and to learn from and with scholars. The standard of excellence of the faculty is quite remarkable.”
  • “The SJLA Program and the people in it made it possible for me to truly understand Ignatian values, and to get the very most out of my Jesuit education.

To learn more about the University of Scranton's Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program, please click here.