Honors for the 21st Century: A Revisionary Tale from Seattle University

By Sean H. McDowell, Director, University Honors Program, Seattle University

Sean H. McDowell (Photo by Seattle University)

Sean H. McDowell (Photo by Seattle University)

Many students attend Jesuit colleges and universities because they wish to make a difference in the world. In the summer of 2015, during a study abroad course in Ireland, one student, Will, regularly stopped to pick up litter wherever he went. His habit was to properly dispose of at least ten pieces of trash per day. “Every day,” he said, “I want to leave the world a better place than I found it when I woke up.”

Many of his fellow students at Jesuit institutions feel the same way—and not just about the environment but about poverty, social justice and tolerance in every facet of life. How should an Honors program prepare students to fulfill this desire in a variety of professions? And how should a globally sensitive liberal arts education look in the 21st century?

Five years ago, the University Honors Program at Seattle University (SU) began to engage these questions head-on as part of its most comprehensive curriculum revision in 58 years. The stakes were high. Critiques of liberal arts education were at a fever pitch in the national media. Loud voices questioned its value, and admissions evidence suggested parents were listening, especially with regard to the humanities.

Since its founding in 1959, the University Honors Program at SU has always been a great books program, similar to those at Columbia University, the University of Chicago and St. John’s College, but with two important differences. First, rather than treat the great books as ahistorical, we arranged our interdisciplinary curriculum chronologically. As a cohort, students began with seminars on the ancient world and over the next two years, progressed through time to conclude with the 20th century. Second, in keeping with the Jesuit tradition, the program started not with Western Europe but with ancient India, with the close study of Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and Hindu mathematics. From the beginning, we recognized that a “great book” could come from any culture at any time.

Over the years, our faculty revised the curriculum twelve times. After each revision, key elements persisted: a great books/major figures emphasis; a preference for Socratic seminars; a chronological arrangement of seminars; a cohort model; and oral instead of written exams at the end of every term. These signature features, as labor intensive as they are, have nevertheless proved successful in helping Honors students win prestigious fellowships and excel in their majors and beyond.

But none of the previous curricular revisions was as extensive or far-reaching as the latest one. Previously, we always maintained a small program: just one cohort (20-25 students) in each of the program’s two years. This time, however, we were asked to triple the program size to provide more spots for Honors-capable students. We also needed to consider carefully how more and more, incoming students tend to define “relevance” strictly in present-tense terms: for many, “relevant” is that which applies directly and immediately to pressing socio-political concerns today. 

In the end, thirty-three faculty members from SU's College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Science and Engineering, and the Albers School of Business contributed to writing the revision proposal and its seminar descriptions, in consultation with student and alumni representatives and other campus constituents. The process was collaborative, collegial and truly exploratory. 

It began with a rigorous interrogation of our own history. We were both surprised and emboldened to discover that several of our concerns mirrored those of our program’s founders more than half a century earlier. In a letter dated October 1960, Rev. Thomas L. O’Brien, S.J., the program’s first director, described the then newly-implemented Honors program as an “answer” to six problems “facing us all in education in America today”:

  1. Lack of challenge for the gifted student.
  2. Over-fragmentation in the present curriculum.
  3. Inefficient teaching techniques, usually identified with the lecture method alone.
  4. Lack of a stimulating atmosphere.
  5. Waste of time in both high school and college.
  6. Lack of appreciation for the corporate learning process in which students learn from teachers and each other, and teachers learn from students.

Many of these problems still confront higher education. We also realized that the cohort model, the Socratic seminar teaching style, the historicized track structure, and the oral exams expressly addressed the problems that Fr. O’Brien enumerated – and they worked. 

Our revision took more than two years and culminated in the creation of two new tracks. The existing Honors curriculum, revised to include two new science seminars (“The Rise of Science” and “Electricity, Energy and Evolution”), new social science seminars (“Capitalism and Its Discontents,” “Human Rights in the Modern World” and “Modern Selves and Global Society”) and a new statistics course, became the “Intellectual Traditions” track. 

Next, we added a new three-year track, called “Innovations,” for those students with credit-intensive majors or those who simply want a more attenuated Honors experience. It shares some seminars with "Intellectual Traditions" and offers new ones on such subjects as “Catholicism and Its Global Reach,” “History of Revolutions” and “Major Ethical Debates of the Modern World.”

Finally, we added a second two-year track, “Society, Policy & Citizenship.” This track begins with the same strong humanities focus as "Intellectual Traditions" in the first year but moves at a faster pace. The second year then provides a greater concentration on the social sciences, with new seminars on “18th- and 19th-Century Social Theory,” “Ethics and Moral Philosophy,” “Modern Political Theory” and “The Evolution of Economics.” The track concludes with a capstone quarter, during which students work collaboratively to create a policy response that reflects the content of the track as a whole and addresses a prominent question of social concern.

Last fall, we launched the "Intellectual Traditions" and "Innovations" tracks; "Society, Policy & Citizenship" will launch in Fall 2017. Altogether, these three tracks allow students to choose the liberal arts foundation that best matches their interests and aspirations. We continue to believe, as our predecessors did half a century ago, that only through a grounding in history and the development of ideas, movements, discoveries and other phenomena over time can students truly understand the deep-rootedness of 21st-century problems, a necessary prelude to addressing them; but more important, this belief does not absolve us of the responsibility to speak to our students in terms they understand, even as they learn new ways to consider the world.