The Argument for Honors Classes in the Humanities


Daniel Braun

Latin students avidly take notes in one of the classes that the school offers.

Honors classes were created for students who want to challenge themselves in particular subject areas. Students in an honors class are those who seek to dedicate themselves to the topic and are the most knowledgeable in the subject area.

At Latin, for those students interested in STEM, there are a myriad of opportunities to take honors classes at every level. From Honors Physics freshman year to Honors Multivariable Calculus as an upperclassman, the options are abundant. In contrast, humanities enthusiasts have few opportunities to explore more rigorous courses in the subjects they care about most.

The History Department does not offer any honors classes until junior year; only the very advanced World Language classes offer honors opportunities; and English does not offer honors credit at all.

History Department Chair Ernesto Cruz, said there are no history honors classes until junior year because in regular-paced history classes, “There are always sufficient challenges, and the honors track is artificial and does not exist in college.”

This argument ignores the fact that most colleges have many fewer course requirements and undergraduate students, for the most part, pursue an area of study they are passionate about. Indeed, most classrooms, especially for higher-level classes, are like honors classrooms because each student chose to be there.
Notably, over the last two years, the History Department experimented with an earned honors model, which applied only to junior year U.S. History. The move to earned credit has been controversial. In a 2021 poll conducted by The Forum, 81 percent of respondents said they believed Latin should not have eliminated the honors U.S. History course.

Combining honors and regular U.S. History students in one classroom lost many of the benefits of an honors class, such as allowing students who are all very invested in the subject to work rigorously together.

Countless times last year in my U.S. History class, I witnessed students watching soccer or playing games on their computers as my teacher described basic-level history topics. This distracting behavior left me and many of my peers feeling less engaged in the class and less able to dig deeply into a subject matter we loved.

Honors classes will not necessarily abolish distracting student behavior but will mitigate it. According to an article by Oxford Learning, students are more easily distracted when they are not sufficiently challenged.

Having various levels of a class allows the teacher to tailor teaching methods and the difficulty of the course to the students in the classroom, potentially increasing student engagement with the work. Honors will enable students who are more interested to go further in-depth at a faster pace while enabling students who have different strengths to learn at a more appropriate pace.

English Department Chair Kate Lorber-Crittenden defended her department’s policy of not offering honors classes, saying, “This is where we can see inequity. Why are the kids in honors classes being placed in those classes?”

This issue of academic inequity is a real one. Rather than eliminating the opportunities honors classes provide, the departments should think about support for students genuinely interested in the subject but who need to build a stronger foundation.

The lack of humanities honors classes also can negatively affect Latin students in the college process. Putting aside students who double up in subjects, STEM students can easily have eight honors credits by the time they graduate (an honors math and honors science class each year), whereas humanities-inclined students only have the possibility of two honors credits in history their junior and senior years and potentially a couple more honors credits if they take advanced language classes.

Devon Jones, a college counselor at Latin, said, “If you are able to show that you challenged yourself in a subject that you are passionate about, colleges will like that,” but added that most colleges “try and have a holistic approach” where they are supposed to judge you based on the classes at your disposal.

Having honors classes in the humanities allows all Latin students who want to work hard to feel engaged and challenged in the classroom. Expanding the honors humanities offerings will give humanities-focused students opportunities equal to their STEM counterparts.