By Alan Kimball

Director of the University of Oregon Honors College, Eugene, Oregon, and
President of the Western Regional Honors Council

pp. 17-20, 36-7

"Honor" and "honors" are bothersome words. They make the true-blue democratic American uncomfortable. They smell like aristocracy and elitism, all those things we overturned in 1776 and replaced, we hope forever, with a constitutional system.

"Honor" and "honors" are used in many different settings to mean several different things: high public esteem, fame, glory, honesty, integrity, credit or distinction, high respect, worth, merit, privilege of association with a respected person or group, a decoration, or a deferential title.

A wit might say that there are serious contradictions among these uses; for example, the contradiction between high public esteem and honesty, or between privilege and worth.

But the list of meanings and contradictions does not end even yet. Honor in a woman historically meant chastity or purity, while in a man, something grander and easier.

Honors is also the five highest trump cards in certain table games and, outdoors, the privilege of teeing off first in golf. Honor takes on special meaning in certain expressions: the acceptance and acknowledgment of responsibility for one's actions (as in "upon one's honor"), a show of respect (as in "do honor to"), and the action of a host (as in "do the honors").

The words also have special educational uses. These uses interest me most. I am a graduate of an "Honors" program and currently Director of an "Honors" college. I feel a discomfort with the words, even though I have devoted a good piece of my life working for the realization of the concept, and I understand why that discomfort is widely felt. Discomfort is eased by timely and pertinent quotes from our "founding fathers," such as those selected by Western Regional Honors Council President Bill Baurecht in his November 1983 letter to members. Bill quoted Thomas Jefferson's confidence that our fledgling democracy need not fear for the future because a "natural aristocracy" of "virtue and talents" would emerge from her citizenry to govern wisely and justly.

The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society.

Jefferson's words give heart to all who believe in the res publica. But his Enlightenment confidence, his deistic optimism, his naturalistic faith have lost much of their force in our time. Discomfort persists.

I have been disturbed by careless use of the words honor and honors, and by faulty application of the concepts in education. Abuse has called forth criticism that is not altogether unjustified.

I would distinguish three main motives behind the criticism. The first two represent a curious conjunction of two very different outlooks. First, there are those who accuse Honors in the public university of promoting "elitism" but whose desire, ironically, is to protect the privilege of the well-to-do by preventing quality education from setting down roots in the public domain, leaving that to private schools of limited access. This outlook is seldom expressed among the public at large but is not infrequently expressed by our colleagues in the academy; often colleagues who themselves bear BAs, MAs, and PhDs from prestigious institutions. It is expressed by those who claim to speak for the public at large, whose true voice on the matter has yet to be heard. The first motive is therefore an aristocratic motive in disguise, and it works in conjunction with the very different motive of those whose outlook might be called "left-wing democratism," radical leveling, that lovely ideological Garden of Eden, Anarchism. This second motive represents nothing less than that Jeffersonian confidence, optimism, and naturalism gone wild. Someone once called this sort of outlook an "infantile disorder." I'm not certain I have been sufficiently inoculated against this disorder. I admit to tinges of that disease now and again. I can concede, in fact, some value to both the aristocratic and anarchist motives. But they have combined to work a lot of mischief. Their unnatural alliance represents a perpetual threat to quality in the public realm.

A third motive however seems most worthy of serious attention. It is expressed by those who are disturbed to see rank and distinction, especially within a public institution, conferred on individuals or groups who do not deserve them, and to see that frequently deserving individuals and groups receive no reward at all.

This critique is serious indeed, especially since the words "honor" and "honors" in education are frequently used in two closely related but significantly different ways: (1) a special rank or distinction conferred by a university, and (2) an advanced course of study for superior students. As in the earlier example, "privilege and worth," there is here too, if not contradiction, at least some confusion of meaning between special rank and distinction, on the one hand, and advanced study for superior students on the other.

Special rank and distinction are not always the result of truly superior study. This can happen in two ways. Students of indifferent quality sometimes assume rank and distinction simply by association with programs of high quality. This can happen in the public or the private realms. And programs of low quality promise much but fail to challenge and nurture the talent of quality students invited to join them. This too can happen in both the public and private realms.

On the other hand, truly superior study is not always rewarded with rank and distinction, either in our educational institutions or later in life. This, I fear, happens most often in the public realm. And it happens fundamentally in just one way: educational institutions and society at large occasionally will not or cannot make a place for superior achievement.

Rank and distinction are therefore occasionally conferred where there is no superior achievement and, most hurtfully, a good deal of superior achievement goes unrewarded; sometimes it is even discouraged.

Perhaps it is here that we should further refine our notions about elitism in education and in life. Rank and distinction, also privilege, position, power, prestige, wealth and comfort -- all are honorable things when they are truly earned, achieved or properly conferred. Only the most thoroughgoing democratic ideologue could take offense at this. But when they are not truly earned, achieved or properly conferred, they deserve our highest scorn. This is the sense in which absolutely all egalitarians and democrats reject and struggle against "elitism." When rank and distinction come from birth or influence or simply wealth, when rank and distinction are not the result of superior achievement, democratic principles are threatened. When this happens in educational institutions, learning ceases not only to fulfill its own particular mission, but it ceases also to serve the public interest.

In the world of learning one would want to insist that distinction follow only from superior academic achievement. At the same time one should insist that it follow inevitably from superior academic achievement. High distinction should always and exclusively follow superior achievement. We know that this is not always so. And we do not like it. When it is not so, we may then speak of "elitism." And we should always struggle against it.

"Elitism," in the pejorative sense in which most use the word, means conferring rank without achievement, and withholding distinction from those who deserve it but are beyond the circle of the elite. To struggle against elitism means to struggle against all rank and distinction that does not follow from superior achievement, and it means to struggle to make sure that superior achievement always results in rank and distinction. The zealous will do both; moderates will be content to devote themselves to the latter. Altogether this may be no more or less than the struggle for justice itself.

Let me press this argument one level deeper. If what has preceded seems comfortable enough, what follows may seem a bit touchy.

The word "elite" has as its root meaning "selection" or "election." Perhaps it still has some very proper use in connection with election to high clerical posts within the Catholic Church. We use the word in a vaguer and fundamentally colloquial sense and, in the final analysis, our usage grants only one significant meaning: those who have superior command over goods and services. More simply we say "the rich," "the well-to-do," "the upper class," or "the ruling class."

When we say "elitism" we mean something a bit stronger than "a system or ideology that allows elites." Some form of rank and distinction has been a feature of all but a few short-lived, radically egalitarian communities. So we do not call every social and political hierarchy elitist. What we mean by elitISM is a system or ideology that confers rank and distinction without proper" regard to achievement and withholds rank and distinction from those whose achievement merits them.

An elitist system might be an aristocracy, wherein those who have superior command over goods and services are born to it. Most complicated social and political systems, however, are mixtures of rank conferred here by birth and there by endeavor. A democratic system is one in which rank and distinction conferred by birth are reduced approximately to a nullity and where opportunity and reward for superior endeavor are open to all. All this elementary "political science" helps illustrate just what Jefferson meant by natural aristocracy, as distinct from the artificial aristocracy of birth or privilege.

I would say that in the USA, education is the single most effective route to positions of rank and distinction, of privilege and responsibility, for those not born to it. Not all rank and distinction come from education, but even those born to it must almost always have that birthright confirmed by successful completion of education at least through the undergraduate university level. And this may be completed at any fine university, but is frequently accomplished through association with one of the two dozen or so expensive private universities in this nation that are properly considered among the world's very best: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and others.

Fine scholarship programs and various sorts of affirmative action programs at these fine schools do not alter the essential fact that wealth is one significant prerequisite to matriculation. Compare the average costs of tuition, room and board, books and other expenses at an excellent private institution ($10,000 to $15,000 per year) with the same costs at the University of Oregon ($3,500 to $4,500 per year). [How quaint these specific figures seem only a few years after this was originally written.]

Those not born to rank and distinction must find their way into the best educational institutions or, if they lack funds or if they identify with their own region, they must seek challenge and quality education in the public university.

Publicly supported state universities and colleges must maintain Honors programs for just this reason. Here I mean the word mainly in that second sense, "advanced courses of study for superior students." There should follow from this the other sense of Honors, "special rank or distinction conferred by a university." Public schools should be no different than private in their insistence that special rank or distinction be conferred only and inevitably as a result of advanced and superior study. So long as this is so, there is no danger of elitism. This, in fact, is a positive effort to assure that elitism remains a marginal feature of our national life. Authentic Honors programs in the public university help assure that all good students who are willing to take on the challenge of a high quality education will have conferred upon them genuine academic rank and distinction, and possibly that those who do so, in private as well as public schools, will have equal access to rank and distinction after they graduate.

If we were to decide not to maintain Honors programs in our public schools, we would contribute significantly to the extension of elitism into our national life. Only those who could afford access to exclusive, high quality institutions, or were among the few admitted under affirmative action guidelines or with scholarships, would have favored preparation for post-graduate opportunities. More immediately, we would squander the talent of scores of our best young folk, we would close the door to professions and other skilled careers for scores of our best talent; all this only because they come from families that cannot afford private schooling or whose range of expectation only too late reaches its maturity.

In Oregon the top five percent of high school graduates are designated Oregon Scholars. They number around 1,500, Over half go to college in public institutions. That means that about 800 high-quality students, some of the best talent of the state, academically indistinguishable in aggregate from their classmates who select private schools, seek higher education in the public realm. They are the reason that Honors in the state university, in Oregon and elsewhere, represent a significant and vital element in the realization of the American egalitarian ideal. Honors extends the best possible educational opportunities to the widest possible population of those who are able and willing to "think things through."

Now let's push one final level further into the problem. There are educational ideals that reach significantly beyond careers, beyond rank and distinction. The ultimate mission of Honors in public institutions of learning does not differ from the mission of all educational institutions, whether public or private, whether elementary, secondary, baccalaureate, graduate, or post-doctoral. All have as their ultimate objective to instill a recognition, respect and expectation of quality in one's life. We all know this, but I would be remiss if I did not mention it here in an address that has concentrated perhaps overmuch on rank and distinction.

Education is finally all about quality, but there is no single road to quality. If I may express myself somewhat colloquially: nobody has quality captive in a curriculum. Nobody owns quality. Nobody weds quality through solemn ritual. Nobody is guaranteed quality by birth. Nobody rules over quality. Nobody buys quality or sells it into another's slavery. Neither those who hand out Honors nor those who receive them have any command over quality, or even any necessary advantage over it. We are all servants of quality, we are all aspirants toward quality. The realm of quality is well beyond rank and distinction, though we might fondly hope and strenuously labor that their realms might be brought always more closely together.

Returning at last to my main theme, this again is the formula: in the world of learning (and the wider world as well), rank and distinction should follow only and inevitably from superior achievement.

The place of Honors in publicly financed education should therefore be secure. Honors programs in public educational institutions, so long as they nurture genuinely superior study, and so long as they confer rank and distinction only and inevitably upon genuinely superior study, are not a betrayal of any known egalitarian ideal (except perhaps anarchism). They are not a betrayal but an essential fulfillment.

It could be that Jefferson's Enlightenment confidence, his deistic optimism and his naturalistic faith have lost much of their force in our time. Quality citizens may not just naturally emerge. We may prudently refuse to relax in the expectation that some deity will grant us wise and just rulers. We would do well to temper our confidence with a strong determination that our nation's leaders, in all fields of endeavor, be recruited from the whole citizenry. Democracy and its most appropriate art, literate deliberation, to a very large measure, must be perpetually taught into existence at the highest levels and throughout the land. Honors in the public realm has a vital mission to do just that.