Yeshiva College Offers Too Few Honors Courses
Prof. William Lee, Yeshiva College Associate Professor of English, told The Commentator in 1984 that “the best [students at Yeshiva College] are as talented as the best at Harvard, though fewer, and the worse are worse but more numerous.” Quantity of students aside, Prof. Lee’s comments comforted me when I first read them; I, among other students, fear that our university lacks the academic rigor of other secular institutions, and while I can’t claim that our classes are as vigorous as those in Harvard, I found solace in Prof. Lee’s assessment of our student body’s academic ability.
The Honors Program at YU exists to develop the abilities of the elite students who choose to attend this non-elite institution. YU’s standards for admission don’t compare to those of most other private research universities, and as a result, our student body boasts an unusually large range of intellectual ability. Therefore, we must make sure that our brightest students can create a space of serious academic immersion, surrounded by like-minded individuals who challenge them to become the best students that they can be.
But the YC administration’s decision to cut the number of Honors classes offered each semester hinders Honors students from creating that space. From Fall 2015 to Fall 2018, the number of Honors courses offered in Yeshiva College dropped from 34 to just 14. In the Spring 2019 semester, there are no Honors classes being offered in the Computer Science, Economics, English, Mathematics, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology departments, which represent over half of the subjects that Yeshiva College students can major in. The Honors Program website claims that “students who take honors courses commit themselves to hard work, a challenging search for understanding, and intellectual excellence,” but English majors like me haven’t been offered Honors English courses not cross-listed as a CORE class since Spring 2017. Must a YC Honors student only commit to “a challenging search for understanding” if it is within the CORE?
Faced with dwindling enrollment, the Yeshiva College administration recently reduced the minimum number of required Honors courses from eight to six and concentrated the Honors courses offered each semester into the CORE. In doing so, the administration stripped the Honors Program of its legitimacy, prompting students to take Honors courses to fulfill requirements for graduation and not for the pursuit of their interests. It’s not hard to understand why an informal 2017 Commentator poll found that only half of YC Honors students intend to graduate with Honors; Honors students rightly feel no obligation to fulfill the requirements of an outmoded and unsatisfactory program.
When asked about the current paucity of YC Honors classes, Prof. Daniel Rynhold, director of the program, responded, “I am painfully aware of the lack of Honors options in the undergraduate schedule. Unfortunately, this is a result of the decrease in faculty numbers over the past few years, which means that we are simply unable to staff the same number of courses as we could in the past. But the problem that the Honors Program faces here is, therefore, really a symptom of a more general issue for YC. While I, together with the YC deans, am looking at what we can do to address these issues, we are all at the mercy of whether or not YU decides to invest in replacing undergraduate faculty when, for whatever reason, posts are vacated.”
If there aren’t any easy solutions to this problem, then perhaps the Honors Program should rethink all of its requirements and how students fulfill them. Honors students benefit little from taking Honors classes exclusively in the CORE, and another reduction of the number of required classes would only delegitimize the program further. Just eight years ago, 754 students were enrolled in YC for the fall semester, 43 percent more than the 527 enrolled in Fall 2018. We must acknowledge that as the landscape of our college changes the requirements should change as well.
“A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end,” argued John Henry Newman in 1858. “It aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.”
It is incumbent upon the YC administration to restore the Honors Program to the standards that Newman imagined over a century ago. Without spaces to develop their opinions with other students, Honors students cannot hope to raise the intellectual tone of our university and community at large. We owe it to ourselves to see what our best students can do.
Photo Caption: Zysman Hall on the Wilf Campus
Photo Credit: US News & World Report