This brief history was composed by Ulrich Wicks who directed the Honors Program from 1981 through 1987.
The Honors Program at the University of Maine is one of the oldest in the United States. It began in the early 1930s within the College of Arts and Sciences, at a time when there were probably no more than half a dozen such programs for undergraduates throughout the country. The UM program was founded on a modest scale by Stanley R. Ashby, professor of English, who was a member of the first contingent of American Rhodes Scholars to go to Oxford University in October 1904. (He is supposedly the model for the tall Texan in the big hat who figures briefly in Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson.) According to Cecil J. Reynolds, professor emeritus of English, Ashby retained fond memories of the individual tutorials, unfettered outside reading, and small group discussions at Oxford. Reynolds remembers Ashby as a “very shy, very reserved gentleman,” but “an idealist” who, in spite of the difficulties of launching new programs during the financial pinch of the Depression era, nurtured the program into existence as a labor of love. He was joined in this effort by a small group of Arts and Sciences faculty members, including Reynolds himself, who taught Honors on top of their regular teaching load, without additional compensation. In this manner the program survived without a lapse throughout the 1940s and 50s, first under Ashby, then under Ronald Levinson, professor of Philosophy, with help from Kenneth Miles, professor of German. The only administrative structure of the program was an Honors committee of interested faculty appointed by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Professor emerita of History Alice R. Stewart remembers hearing about the program at the beginning of her senior year in the fall of 1936. Although she had never been approached about it, Stewart was told by her advisor, professor of History E. Faye Wilson (later to chair the department of History at Wellesley), that she would be writing an Honors thesis because it had been decided to place a few selected seniors with no previous Honors work in the program. Wilson even suggested the topic: medieval universities. After overcoming the local paucity of research materials by trips to Harvard’s Widener Library, and after individualized tutoring in medieval Latin by Wilson, Stewart finally produced her thesis. It, along with her defense of it and the Honors exam itself, got Stewart a “Summa.” Her Honors experience, Stewart recalls, “proved to be a most valuable preparation for my later years as a graduate student and a university teacher. Directly after graduation, I went to Radcliffe. Going from a small university of 1500 students and a history and government department of six people to one of the country’s best known graduate schools was a major transition.” In her first seminar, Stewart remembers, the professor assumed that all students had the necessary background in research techniques, subject matter, and languages. “Partly as a result of my Honors thesis,” she recalls, “I was pleased indeed to find that I was in fact as well or better prepared to cope with this seminar and other courses at Radcliffe than many of my fellow students from Wellesley, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, and Stanford. It was the research techniques and the discipline of the Honors thesis which had the longest carry-over.”
During its first two decades, the Honors Program invited second-year students to join on the basis of their academic achievement during their first year. The purpose of sophomore Honors was to liberalize students’ education by directing their reading and attention into areas outside their anticipated major fields, and perhaps even to allow more thoughtful consideration of a major when the time came to declare one at the end of the second year. “A prospective mathematician might read literature and history,” Professor Reynolds remembers, “a would-be economist might study art, a probably music or literature major might now read widely in science and politics, in all cases hopefully under an enthusiast, not necessarily an expert, in those fields.” From its origins in the 1930s until well into the 70s, in fact, the Honors Program published a periodically revised list of useful books in many fields, designed to guide students and their tutors in selecting readings.
After the second year, the student was assigned to a tutor within the major field; following the broadening experience of the previous year, the student would now begin specialized research in the major, and sometimes in related fields. The senior year required the writing of a thesis, or a creative project such as an original play, story, or work of art. At the end of the senior year, the student was examined orally by a select committee, with one hour on the thesis and one hour on a selection of readings outside the student’s major. Depending on the results–and adding in the student’s over-all academic performance both within and outside Honors–the examining committee awarded the designation Honors, High Honors, or Highest Honors, to-be inscribed on the student’s degree. With many small variations over the years, this basic structure of the Honors Program survives today.
In the late 1950s, when honors programs began to multiply in colleges and universities with the mushrooming postwar growth of those institutions themselves, the University of Maine Honors program had been solidly established for almost a generation. The Honors idea was sparked mainly by J. W. Cohen at the University of Colorado, who had founded the Inter-university Committee on the Superior Student (ICSS) and published a periodical, The Superior Student. He traveled to scores of campuses to encourage the formation of honors programs. When he came to the University of Maine, Professor Reynolds says, “he was quite surprised to find that we had been ‘with it’ for thirty years.”
Reynolds was responsible for a major turning point in the UM Honors Program in the early 1960s, when he proposed opening the program to first-year students in their second semester. “The proposal was accepted, and the first two groups of Freshman Honors (Hr 45) met around the long table in the Faculty Room of the College of Education in the spring of 1962. The groups of 16 each were much larger than desirable but at least we got away from the classroom desk and serried chairs. For two hours (and often more) each week we discussed what we had read in a series of eight small paperbacks chosen by me. These ran quite a gamut, from Whitehead’s The Aims of Education through Agard’s The Greek Mind to a couple of books on sciences such as anthropology. An essay was required about every three weeks.” Second- and third-year students, meanwhile, continued to meet in individual and small groups in the offices of the involved faculty.
Also in 1962, Honors teaching began to count officially as part of the faculty member’s teaching load. The other undergraduate colleges developed their own honors programs. Finally, a University Honors Council was established, with representatives from all of the UM colleges, chaired by the Vice President for Academic Affairs. What had begun as a modest effort to transplant the Oxford paradigm to an American-style university within the College of Arts and Sciences had now grown into a large university-wide program. In the mid 1960s Honors study was expanded to include incoming first-year students through a program called Distinguished Maine Students (DMS), which designated 32 incoming students (two from each Maine county) as deserving of tuition waivers for the first semester and as first-semester Honors students. This was an incentive to draw topnotch native students to the University. This program no longer exists, though the current Maine Scholars Day and the Presidential Scholarships program have similar aims. As a result of the DMS program, the first-year Honors course expanded to a full year. This course, now called Honors Seminar, is the Program’s largest and most diverse, currently enrolling more than 100 students per semester. It is the foundation of the Program’s philosophy, which Professor Reynolds, after four decades of involvement with Honors, summarizes: “The aim of Honors at Maine was and is, in my opinion, to mitigate to a healthy degree the less admirable effects of too narrow specialization by those who, as leaders of tomorrow, may be called on to make or influence decisions both public and private involving an ever-increasing variety of factors. A pressing need in our complex civilization is a rapid increase in the numbers of those who can mediate sympathetically between strongly held points of view. Unlike some other programs, ours did not propose to produce specialists even more specialized than our contemporaries but to broaden the function of a liberal education even for specialists.”
The expansion into a university-wide program and the growth of the Honors Seminar necessitated an administrative structure to deal with the day-to-day management of the Program and its diverse students and faculty, a task which the Honors Council could not do. So an official director of the Honors Program was appointed in 1962. Throughout the remainder of the 60s and well into the 70s, the Program was under the leadership of Robert B. Thomson, professor of Political Science. In 1969, Professor Thomson. in response to an analysis of student admissions that revealed that the University of Maine was losing a considerable number of students each year because it did not offer sufficient opportunities for the superior student, wrote A Comprehensive Program for the Superior Student, which included the Honors Program as presently constituted “to meet the needs of the imaginative and versatile scholar.” The philosophy behind the Program for the first two years requires a thorough grounding of all students “in the basic approaches of science, social studies, and humanities, and some consideration of the kinds of problems with which these areas of thought are concerned.” Professor Thomson noted that “it cannot be emphasized too strongly that a program of this sort requires a genuine commitment to excellence, and the strongest kind of administrative support. The administrative support must reach down to the department level, and be reflected in such tangibles as promotions, salaries, course assignments, leaves, etc.” Also, that same year, Thomson, together with then Vice President for Academic Affairs James Clark, proposed an Honors College, designed “to provide a spiritual and an academic home for the best students the University is able to attract.” A proposal for an Honors College was also considered again at the system level in 1979, and again for the University of Maine in 1984-85.
In 1974 then President Howard Neville appointed a task force to study the Honors Program. Chaired by professor of Philosophy Erling Skorpen, the eleven-member task force spent an entire academic year giving the Program the most thorough evaluation it had until then received. Many of the recommendations made in the final report of the task force have since then been implemented. Subsequent studies, including another task force report in 1985, ensure that the Honors Program undergoes constant self-examination in an ongoing effort to preserve the delicate balance between the continuity of its original philosophy and the change necessary to accommodate the needs of today’s students and faculty.
In late 1975, the Honors Program received its own building, named the Thomson Honors Center in 1983, shortly after the death of the Program’s longtime director. The building was designed by Professor Norman Smith, then of the Department of Agricultural Engineering, with assistance from Professor Warren Hedstrom and graduate student William Beutel. Construction began in late fall 1974, with student labor from the Agricultural and Forestry Engineering programs. Six modules were assembled in the Agricultural Engineering department and erected on an above-ground foundation with built-up beam flooring. The building was monitored for its energy usage for two years as part of an experiment conducted by Smith, who at that time was studying low-cost and energy-efficient rural housing. Though there have been extensive modifications to the interior of the building, its basic design remains intact. The center contains a small library, named in honor of Cecil J. Reynolds, who donated the books from which the library began. It now holds well over 3000 volumes, as well as a small video library and a collection of Honors theses from the 1930s to the present.
Thomson’s long tenure as director was followed by those of Samuel Schuman (1977-81), associate professor of English; Ulrich Wicks (1981-87), associate professor of English; William Baker (1987-88), professor of History; William Whipple (1988-90); Ruth Nadelhaft (1990-1997), professor of English; [and Charlie Slavin (1997-), associate professor of mathematics.] In addition to their duties in managing the day-to-day business of the Program, directors serve as liaison between the Program and the varied university-wide constituencies it serves. Directors are active in the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) and the Northeast Regional NCHC; in 1983, the University of Maine hosted the annual regional meeting on campus. Honors students, too, through their own Organization of Honors Students (OHS) participate in the conventions of the national and regional associations.
In spring 1982, the Honors Program logo was created by Arline Thomson; it is a composite of three designs submitted by Honors students Kim Cassida (class of 1984), Bette Sylvester (1983), and Kevin Hollenbeck (1985) as part of a contest held by the Program for the express purpose of originating a logo–a distinctive graphic symbol that makes people aware of the Program’s goals. The symbolism of the open book is obvious; the pine branch represents Maine, and the sign for infinity stands for seeing and perceiving in all the senses of the term as well as for the limitless possibilities of Honors study. In spring 1987, when the Program celebrated fifty years of the Honors thesis at the University of Maine, the newly catalogued list of thesis titles covering half a century testified to the range and variety of Honors study, as did the words of invited Honors graduates, ranging from the first class in 1937 through the class of 1986.
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