On October 4, 1957, the Russians stunned the world by launching the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. In the wake of the resulting reexamination of American higher education after the launch of Sputnik, on May 18, 1958, a group of 172 University of Wisconsin-Madison students presented the President of the University, E. B. Fred, a petition charging that the University of Wisconsin had "failed to challenge its students sufficiently" and called on the faculty to help address this failure by "challenging us more fully." Less than one year later the faculty of the College of Letters and Science responded by establishing the L&S Honors Program, with instruction beginning in the fall of 1960.
The subsequent years have seen over 5,000 students graduate with Honors degrees from the College of Letters & Science. For most of its history, the Program required completion of 40 credits of Honors course work as well as an Honors Senior Thesis to receive the Honors Degree. Students participating in the Program were challenged inside the classroom with rigorous coursework in small-scale, faculty-led classes taught at an advanced level as well as outside the classroom through extensive research opportunities.
The Program underwent its most significant curriculum change in 1997. That year a new degree structure was introduced consisting of three possible Honors degree paths: Honors in the Liberal Arts, Honors in the Major, and Comprehensive Honors (completion of both Honors in the Liberal Arts and Honors in the Major). This new degree structure provides today's Honors students with flexibility in their Honors education: students may focus on a liberal arts curriculum, advanced training and research in their major discipline, or a combination of both by pursuing the Comprehensive Honors degree, the highest degree awarded by the college.
Today, the L&S Honors Program serves about 1,200 students. In addition to the curriculum itself, Honors students receive academic advising, extra- and co-curricular programming opportunities, support for introductory- and senior thesis-level research, funding for study abroad, and leadership and community service opportunities through the Program. The Program graduates 200-250 students each year.