Honors Program

Honors Program


For nearly 100 years, the Honors Program has embodied Swarthmore's commitment to dedicated learning and the life of the mind. It features small groups of accomplished students working closely with engaged faculty, an emphasis on independent learning, a demanding program of study in major and minor fields, and an examination by outside scholars at the end of two years' study. The heart of the program is the sharing and testing of ideas - students entering into a dialogue with peers, professors, and examiners. This is the most challenging and rewarding program Swarthmore has to offer. In the words of a recent graduate, "it's one of the most enlivening and powerful intellectual experiences of my life."

Unique in the U.S.

"Geoffrey Chaucer's best student on the pilgrim road to Canterbury, a 14th-century Clerk, studied under the same Oxford tutorial system which later inspired President Aydelotte to shape our program. Chaucer says of this clerk that he would 'gladly learn and gladly teach.' In the Honors Program, the dialectic of learning and teaching resolves itself into an exchange of ideas where everyone learns, and the authority of teaching floats naturally from one authorized and enabled voice to another. And in this conflict and collaboration of ideas, we come to cherish the life of learning and be glad."

-- Craig Williamson, Professor of English Literature

The only undergraduate program of its kind in the United States, the Swarthmore Honors Program is modeled on the tutorial system at Oxford, where our seventh president Frank Aydelotte was a Rhodes Scholar. First introduced in 1922, the program's core features include faculty working with small groups of committed students; an emphasis on independent research or special projects; students entering into a dialogue with peers, teachers, and examiners; a challenging program of study in major and minor or cross-disciplinary fields; and an examination by outside experts at the end of the program.

The Honors Program rests on the principle that judgment concerning the achievement of honors at the College should be based on an independent evaluation of a student's work, and it is from this principle that the external examination derives. Each spring more than 100 outside scholars come to campus to give honors students their oral examinations based on their written work. Through these exams, students have the rare and rewarding opportunity to test their ideas with the scholars, artists, thinkers, and researchers they have been studying.

What makes the Honors Program special? What defines it? The answers to these questions will depend upon the individual, the discipline, the idea of learning, but the answer we hear most often is that the Honors Program is built on the idea of dialogue: small classes or seminars where everyone has a chance to speak, a student's responsibility for beginning a discussion with a paper or presentation, the exercise of speaking and writing within and across disciplines, students sharing research results, an exchange between students and examiners who come not only to assess the work but to enter into a dialogue about it.