Amid the recent controversy over grade inflation and honors at Harvard, the College has contemplated eliminating honors degrees in general studies—degrees received by about a quarter of graduating students that require only a B grade point average. Though far too many students—91 percent—receive honors, the standards for honors in general studies should be raised instead of abolishing the category entirely. Students should not be forced to conform to one department’s narrow definition of honors in order to be recognized for distinctive and extraordinary work.
Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82 proposed the change by arguing that honors in general studies was an archaic remnant left over from the days when concentrations were not as central to the undergraduate experience. But though the way students achieve honors has changed, honors in general studies is still a useful and necessary way to reward those who may complete outstanding work that, while while not satisfying the honors requirements for a typical concentration, is just as worthy of praise.
For those in the humanities or social sciences, a thesis should not be the only way to graduate with honors. A thesis is certainly an immense undertaking, but merely completing a thesis should not virtually guarantee an honors degree. Thoroughly excellent coursework should be rewarded more than a mediocre thesis.
Also, if honors in general studies were to be eliminated, students would find themselves forced to write a thesis if they wanted their degrees to reflect outstanding academic performance. No one should write a thesis merely to have the words “cum laude” on a diploma, but it seems unavoidable that some would do just that. The result would be miserable students, bad theses and unhappy advisors.
Of course, honors should distinguish certain excellent students from their peers. If 91 percent of Harvard’s degrees have honors, that purpose is not being fulfilled. Instead of eliminating honors in general studies altogether, the College should raise the GPA standard needed to achieve it—especially in this era of grade inflation. This would solve the problem without unjustly punishing students who don’t follow the typical honors track.
Advisors always say that students should not write a thesis unless they really want to do so. If honors in general studies is eliminated, many students will suffer—both those whose work doesn’t fit some departments’ guidelines, and others who will feel pressured to write theses merely to obtain honors.
Dissent: No Honor in Devalued Degrees
The staff is entirely correct when it asserts that far too many students are currently graduating from Harvard with honors. The fact that 91 percent of seniors earn some form of honors is a blot on Harvard’s reputation as a center of international academic excellence. Honors were designed to reward only those students who distinguished themselves by the very highest of intellectual standards. By devaluing an honors degree, Harvard is not encouraging students to strive to fulfil their maximum academic potential.
An easy way to cut down on the volume of honors graduates would be to eliminate entirely the classification of non-departmental honors. Raising the bar for an honors degree in general studies from a B to a grossly inflated B-plus or A-minus average would solve virtually nothing. The notion that students who, for whatever reason, choose not to participate in their department’s honors track should still be rewarded with an honors degree is faintly risible. At a time when the college is justifiably scrutinized for its controversial grading policies, the administration should do all it can to shore up Harvard’s academic reputation. The immediate abolition of non-departmental honors would prove a sensible first step.
—Anthony S. A. Freinberg ’04 and Andrew P. Winerman ’04