Excerpt from Chapter 10 of Malamalama: A History of the University of Hawai‘i
by Robert M. Kamins and Robert E. Potter
Copyright 1998, University of Hawaii Press (used with permission)
A Brief History of the Honors Program
by James R. Linn
In the 1930s a faculty committee allowed talented undergraduates to substitute for their major a two-year course of independent study culminating in the award of “Special Honors,” but for the next two decades the honors degree depended solely upon grade-point average. By the mid-1950s, however, faculty members at Manoa, like those across the country, had become disturbed by the neglect of our most promising students. In 1957 Provost Willard Wilson convened two committees of faculty and administrators, the first of which proposed a lower-division program of Selected Studies, and the other an Honors Program for juniors and seniors. Professor Judson Ihrig (who served 1958- 1964 and again from 1986) coordinated both. The first group of approximately twenty freshmen began Selected Studies in 1958. Two years later, nearly fifty juniors were admitted to the Honors Program, and in 1962 fifteen students from eleven academic departments formed its first graduating class.
In 1957 the Rockefeller and the Carnegie Foundations underwrote the establishment of an Interuniversity Committee on the Superior Student (Icss) to sponsor regional conferences and especially to issue a periodic advisory newsletter describing problems and variations in honors programs nationally. Thanks to the pooled wisdom of our campus committees and the ICSS newsletters and the energy of Dr. Ihrig, the programs had attained their permanent shape by the time he resigned in 1964.
Selected Studies provided small discussion-centered classes of fifteen to twenty-five students in many of the courses required in the core curriculum. Instead of attending lectures with one hundred or four hundred others, Honors students who enrolled in History 161A, for example, would discuss major events on the basis of their study of original texts and partisan arguments presented in their source books. Admission to the program was by invitation to high school students whose grades or recommendations were high. They were given individual academic advising–an advantage too often precluded by other demands on the time of faculty volunteers- and so the core of the program lay in the small “A-sections.” Although some of these were subsidized by the program, the majority were furnished by the departments that participated.
Faculty members welcomed the challenge of working with talented students and the chance to experiment in teaching, while their departments gained some promising majors. Moreover, many an experimental A-section, like Economics 120 or English 105, developed into the department’s standard offering. There were problems: if too few selected studies students registered, an A-section might be filled with the remnants of general registration, to the frustration of all. Again, some teachers regarded the A-section as a pool of potential majors for their department. Generally, however, over the years student evaluations were highly favorable; and, perhaps as significant, those who took the most A-sections made the highest grades.
Separation of the two programs was intentional. Although a good case can be made in its favor (and often was), the concept of an integrated four-years Honors College was resisted. Among several reasons, including a cultural suspicion of elitism in students and faculty alike, perhaps the most compelling was that a four-year commitment would divert too much emphasis to a rigorous initial screening. Far better, it was thought, to admit all the potentially capable and allow them a graceful exit.
Components of the Honors Program had varied success. One, a comprehensive exam for all its students, was soon abandoned. Another, the college or departmental program, flourished here and there on the campus. The English Department, for example, maintained a highly successful program of tutorials, thesis defense, and individual career counseling and support. During the 1960s the College of Education established A-sections in each required “core” course and for practice teaching; indeed, at one time, Honors students could do their practice teaching abroad. Departments like Psychology and programs like Biological Sciences experienced periods of ebb and flow, but in most departments a supplemental honors program was short-lived. The chief problem apparently was not a failure of funds or faculty interest, but rather a break in continuity: inspired and perhaps assisted by a lively group of Honors seniors, a department would create a challenging program- only to abandon it because of a dearth of exceptional juniors in the next few years.
For the past thirty-odd years, then, Honors degrees have been recommended by the Honors Council on the basis of high grades and the successful completion of two other requirements- one of which, the Colloquium, may have been unique to this university. At some time during their last two years candidates must take two semesters of this interdisciplinary discussion course, wherein a dozen students from different majors meet weekly to analyze a significant problem, theme, book, or- in the early years- a talk by a prominent member of the community. Each section is led by a volunteer from the faculty or community; for years the chief executive of the Kahala Hilton Hotel led discussions of “Tourism: For Better or Worse?” In the mid-1960s, under the course chairmanship of Professor of Religion Friederich Seifert, many groups were led by specially trained students. From the beginning, the Colloquium demanded analytical papers as well as participation in discussion. To protect those less verbal, it became one of the pioneers of pass-fail grading.
The final requirement, and the most visible, is the senior honors thesis. Under the guidance of a faculty member of their choice, students spend a year producing a work that falls somewhere between a master’s thesis and a conventional term paper. They may have explored research methods in a junior-year Honors course, but most learned by doing. Students in the arts offer recitals, exhibitions, or performances, appending a short paper demonstrating the critical analysis underlying their thesis offering. Periodic comparison with similar mainland programs showed the standard of theses at Manoa to be remarkably high. They usually won the research prizes offered on this campus, and many have been published in revised form in scholarly journals, particularly in the natural and social sciences. In 1971 Paul Bienfang read part of his thesis at a Rome convention of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Michelle Cruse Skinner published her collection of short stories as Balikbayan: A Filipino Homecoming in 1988; and the theses of Diane Nosse on “Community Power Structure” (1967) and Cynthia Okazaki on “Land Use Policy” (1978) exerted considerable influence upon state and county government in Hawaii.