“Defining Honors Culture” was written by Charlie Slavin and was originally published in the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council (Volume 9, No. 1, 2008, pp. 15-18); it is reprinted by permission of the National Collegiate Honors Council.
Most of us in honors have a general sense of what the phrase “honors culture” might mean but would be hard-pressed to define it. Those who have been involved in honors education for any length of time realize that this thing we call “honors” varies widely across institutions. We also know that the components of honors culture at even a single institution include multiple and transient populations of administrators, staff, faculty, and students. Many of the recent writings on college culture by columnists like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman focus solely on undergraduate students, but a culture, if there is one, includes all participants and is shaped by relationships among members of successive generations that change over time.
The challenge of identifying an honors culture also involves distinguishing it from, or at least characterizing it within, the larger campus culture. To define honors culture, we need to identify a particular characteristic or group of characteristics that differentiates honors students, honors faculty, or the honors community from the corresponding university-wide group; this is not an easy task since, in many ways, members of an honors community may not differ all that much from their non-honors counterparts. The challenge is further confounded by the disparities among colleges and universities with different populations, missions, and structures, disparities that are reflected in their honors programs and colleges.
I will not, however, toss in the towel. I posit that an honors culture exists and that such a culture, which may appear in different guises at our institutions, always involves some common characteristics. My goal in defining this culture is descriptive, not normative, although it is based on my experiences and hence my own predilections.