THE HONORS PROGRAM

Back in January, I received an invitation from Brother Michael J. McGinniss to a panel discussion on March 22 at my alma mater, La Salle College, now University. The topic question: How Did An Honors Education Affect Your Professional Life? I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend, but for some reason, I felt obliged to answer the question, which I did in a note to Brother Michael:

I entered La Salle in the Fall of 1971, a member of the first or perhaps second Honors Program group. I have very fond memories of Mr. Grady and the professors in the program, including the brilliant, charismatic Dr. Minna Weinsten. But it was in my sophomore year when I took the Honors Program course that changed my life–Theories of Democracy and Civil Disobedience, taught by Professor Michael Dillon, the best teacher I ever had.

I took the course in the fall of 1972. It was a turbulent time, for me personally and for the country. The Vietnam War was still raging. I was facing the draft, Richard Nixon was running for reelection. Against this backdrop came Dr. Dillon’s course, where we talked about what being in a democracy obliges of us, and what rights we possess as individuals that remain inalienable. We read Robert Dahl, Willmore Kendall, Sophocles. The experience was mind-blowing. Mind-expanding. Intellectually thrilling. The class met once a week, but I engaged the subject every day.

The course changed my life. I became more thoughtful about politics, more analytical–dare I say philosophical? And I became a better student. Previously, I had been pretty transactional–everything was about getting grades. After that course, I was hungrier to engage the material, to be a real student.

Today I am teetering to the end of a work career, and I have often made use of the lessons I learned in that course particularly and in the program generally. Most of them have to be with being unafraid to think–to learn, to examine, to challenge, to be imaginative. Right now I am Senior Speechwriter for Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. Not a week goes by where one of the concepts I studied under Dr. Dillon–justice, freedom, equality, duty, power, leadership, morality–doesn’t come into play.

But was that the biggest influence of the Honors Program? Hardly. One of my classmates was a fiery, whip smart redhead named Virginia Jackson. We married four days after graduation in 1975. Forty three years and two daughters later, we’re still discovering and critiquing the world together.

A couple weeks ago, I heard back from Brother Michael: Thanks very much for your personal and inspiring acknowledgement of the invitation to the honors alumni evening on March 22nd. I have read and re-read your email a couple of times, and presumed the liberty of sharing it with our president, Colleen Hanycz, and with Mike Dillon as well.. . . While you shared a very intimate recollection of studying in the HP, I believe it’s fair to say that today’s honors students, albeit in a different kind of world, find the same kind of intellectual and personal challenge to engage the material in ways that go behind just getting down the lecture (or powerpoint) notes. Thanks for sharing your reflections about your time as an honor student, and thanks for taking the values of the program with you over a long career and life.