October 6, 2012
From Sputnik to the 21st century: A brief history of the UW Honors Program
by Aley Willis
The late 1950s and early ’60s brought tidal waves of change to many facets of American society—one doesn’t need to be a “Mad Men” aficionado to recognize that the cultural shifts taking place were significant—long-overdue in many cases—and disruptive of the status quo. From desegregation of schools, the U.S. Freedom Rides, increased numbers of women entering the workforce and more, previously-held ideas about civil rights were being challenged. Internationally, the U.S. and Soviet Union were years into the Cold War, each nation vying to win the “Space Race.” In 1961, Kennedy was president, the Berlin Wall was built and the Vietnam War officially began. If American life in the 1950s was a pretty and serene snow globe, the 1960s would shake it up for good.
These societal and global shifts resonated in the world of higher education as well. In fact, the creation of the University of Washington Honors Program in 1961 reflected both the national concerns with how best to educate students of the time as well as the increased pressure on state public institutions to encourage the top students in the state to enroll closer to home, resolving a “brain drain.” In a 2005 interview, Ran Hennes, former associate director of UW Honors and unofficial program historian recalled, “The launch of Sputnik in 1957 not only generated a ‘space race’ mentality in the U.S., but also sparked a genuine national concern with the quality of education for our citizens. There was a general feeling at the time that America was complacent, and there was a national re-thinking of how we were educating our youth and that we were also falling behind in the ‘race.’”
Honors to help transform the UW into national university
UW president Charles Odegaard believed that a four year Honors Program would play an essential and important role in transforming the UW into a prominent national—and international—university. There was concern that large universities were simply unable to help their top students reach their highest academic potential as they were currently structured, and the nation needed these students to reach their potential. With the creation of the Honors Program, the UW could challenge students beyond the standard curriculum and incorporate the best of what a large research university and a small liberal arts college could offer. The UW Honors Program was established on the early side of this national trend amongst large public universities and exists because of the vision and tenacity of Odegaard and many others including Solomon Katz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, whom Hennes credited with “making Honors come to life.”
The curriculum of the Honors Program has always been, and still is, the foundation on which the academic community in Honors stands. An early brochure explaining the Honors Program stated, “The chief object of the Honors Program is to help each participating student realize his own intellectual potential and to afford him opportunities to reach the full limit of his ability.” That object remains true; the implementation and needs of today’s students require updates over the years. While the curriculum underwent significant changes in recent years, a constant, curricular hallmark has been that Honors students balance their course load with both Honors classes and classes in the broader UW curriculum. This method allows Honors students to follow their academic pursuits and increase the intellectual diversity across UW classes.
The new Honors curriculum
Most recently, the changes made to the Honors Program curriculum reflect the diverse goals students bring to their UW life and the flexibility they need to pursue their academic interests to their fullest. Students now pursue any of three distinct tracks in Honors: Interdisciplinary Honors, College Honors, or Departmental Honors. Students pursuing Interdisciplinary Honors must complete a rigorous general-education curriculum across a variety of disciplines, and are also required to engage in experiential learning and actively reflect on their educational choices in a learning portfolio. Departmental Honors allows students to explore their majors in greater depth by completing upper-level electives, research, or an extended thesis. Students on the College Honors track complete both Interdisciplinary Honors and Departmental Honors.
Students who applied to the Honors program for 2012 admission were asked not only to describe how Honors fits into their imagined future at the UW, but to also reflect on the lessons of the Freedom Rides and describe what steps might be taken by their generation that could bring great change. Students wrote about climate change, advances and limits in technology, and the continued struggle for equal rights.
Students who enter the program as freshmen in the fall of 2012 know they will be asked to engage in rigorous learning. More than ever before, the UW Honors Program asks students to reflect on their cross disciplinary experiences in the classroom and interweave experiential education outside of the classroom. Through this type of dynamic education, Honors students prepare themselves to be thoughtful and compassionate leaders for the new challenges facing us in the 21st century.
Watch a video about an element of the new curriculum, the portfolio, here:
Follow this link to learn more about today’s Honors Program curriculum.