I got home from work today and eagerly started reading the book for Swarthmore’s 150th, “Swarthmore College, A Community of Purpose.”
It was especially enjoyable to read about the birth of the honors program under President Aydelotte and how it put the college on the map academically. I believe Professor Jerry Frost expressed this best in my Quakerism class by contrasting how before the honors program, Swarthmore was known more for football prowess than intellectual rigor. If I remember correctly, he said alumni would complain, “why didn’t we buy a better team?” if the gridiron squad had a bad year.
But my heart sank when I read the book’s description of the 1990s overhaul of the honors program and introducing grades. Not a single mention of how this would by definition change the nature of seminars. Just eight pages earlier the book had touted the lack of grades as, “making professors and students partners in the intellectual enterprise.” Now this fundamental change is glossed over as a necessity for getting more Swatties into graduate school (never mind that our ranks always have been well-represented in the best programs across the country and we have one of the highest percentage of PhD’s among our alumni).
I wholeheartedly agree that the honors program needed updating back then. My classmates in many science disciplines did not think honors would work for them in a way that it now does. Also encouraging interdisciplinary work not only makes the program more vital, it’s actually an homage to the early days under President Aydelotte. Unfortunately, since these other important improvements happened at the same time as adding grades, we have no way of knowing whether interest in the program would have rebounded without assigning students grades along the way.
To make matters worse, on page 79 the book actually acknowledges the controversy over eliminating the football team.
What does this say about Swarthmore that we care more about the dispute over eliminating the football team than a change to the honors program? My beloved college would not have its distinct culture and reputation without the honors program. It pains me that a book years in the making chronicling the college’s history would paper over this significant change.
I had higher hopes for this history book.
Eugene Sonn ‘95
I had the pleasure of working extensively on the book “Swarthmore College: A Community of Purpose,” though not on the chapter to which you refer here. I discussed your observations with others who were part of making this book happen, and the general sentiment is that you make a valid point.
This book had a lot of territory to cover. Virtually every topic could have been addressed in greater detail. We (editorial we) wanted it to include history, but not to be a history book per se. There were difficult editorial decisions every step of the way. I state this to provide perspective, not to diminish the validity of your point.
I can say that, from all I have heard and witnessed in my relatively brief time at Swarthmore (one year), the honors program is strong, and the overall educational experience is both intense and transformational. (I consider the term “transformational” to be a bit overused, but it really does apply here.) We consistently hear from alumni who go on to graduate schools at which they say the education is not nearly as challenging as was their Swarthmore experience.
I’m glad you expressed your view. Again, it’s something we wish we would have done differently. Perhaps at some point in the future, the opportunity will present itself in one college publication or another to cover the ground the book did not cover.