The New Curriculum Then

Toward the end of the 1960s, Brown students were dissatisfied with the University they knew and were ready to do something about it.

“I think I was like a lot of kids coming into school,” said Elliot Maxwell ’68, who was unsure at the time what a college education was supposed to mean.

“We didn’t know what the principles were that Brown stood for,” he said.

“We felt that the education could be better. It was too rote and not enough creativity and giving respect to students and so on. I think we were just motivated by our own experiences,” said Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07.

According to a paper by George Borts, a professor of economics here since 1950, the Brown curriculum then required proficiency in English composition; proficiency in reading in a foreign language; a distribution of four courses each in sciences, humanities and social sciences; an eight-course concentration track with a C average; a senior comprehensive exam; physical education courses and the completion of a 100-meter swim test.

Large lecture courses were the rule, distribution requirements “artificially homogenized what options were open to students,” and there were few opportunities for students to work across insulated disciplines, Magaziner said.

Things could be better, thought Magaziner, Maxwell and others. They would become the primary architects of the New Curriculum of 1969.

How it happened

“We were sort of stumbling through” questions about the nature of a college education before like-minded students decided “a group process would allow us to … work together and organize our activities,” Maxwell said. October 1966 saw the beginning of the first Group Independent Study Project at Brown, consisting of 80 students and 15 faculty members, including Magaziner and Maxwell.

“It was a discussion of education at Brown,” Magaziner said, and the proposals that came out of the GISP found expression in the 418-page “Draft of a Working Paper on Education at Brown University,” written by Magaziner and Maxwell and released in March 1968.

The paper represented “a very traditional, academic approach” to the issue, said Luther Spoehr, currently a lecturer in education and an expert on higher education in the 1960s. “They were being good students,” he said – discussing the history of higher education, critiquing existing policies and suggesting reforms.

The report broadly called for Brown to reorient its undergraduate curriculum to “put students at the center of their education” and seek to “teach students how to think rather than just teaching facts” through smaller courses, independent studies and interdisciplinary efforts, Magaziner said. Specifically it called for an end to letter grades and for small, interdisciplinary “Modes of Thought” courses to be taught for the first two years of college.

Maxwell graduated that spring, and Magaziner, by then president of the Cammarian Club – a predecessor to the current Undergraduate Council of Students – began organizing the student body to press for the curricular reforms they had articulated. “Initially we went dorm to dorm” educating students, he said, then began to engage professors in discussions of reform, and organized protests on the Main Green to force action.

The Herald reported Nov. 5, 1968, that 700 students had rallied on the Main Green the day before, and a month later University President Ray Heffner appointed the Special Committee on Curricular Philosophy to develop specific curricular reforms.

Chaired by Paul Maeder, assistant provost and professor of engineering, the committee included faculty, administrators and undergraduates, and was the first University committee to include students, according to Magaziner. The committee released the Maeder Report recommending specific reforms Apr. 14, 1969, and May 6 – 8 saw marathon faculty meetings to discuss and vote on its proposals.

The unusually large meetings – according to the minutes there were 260 professors present at the start – were held in Sayles Hall and were partly broadcast over loudspeakers on the Main Green. Classes were cancelled on May 7 for an all-day meeting, and hundreds of students gathered outside Sayles cheering and booing as faculty members addressed the core philosophy and mission of Brown University.

The meetings were “heated and long and intense,” said William Crossgrove, professor emeritus of comparative literature. “I remember it as a time of great excitement, and I don’t think faculty meetings were ever as exciting as they were those three days,” he said.

“It was very intense. It was one of those instances where legislation was made by the people with the strongest bladders,” said Borts, who described himself as a “bemused observer” of the proceedings.

“There was a lot of politicking” by Magaziner and other proponents of reform, said Jerome Grieder ’56, professor emeritus of history. They held “negotiating sessions” with skeptical members of the faculty in the Blue Room during recesses.

May 7 saw the passage of the reforms that would become known as the New Curriculum: an end to all distribution requirements, the adoption of “concentrations” instead of majors, the adding of a “Satisfactory/No Credit” grading option for all courses, the reduction of the number of required passing grades to 28 and the adoption of optional Modes of Thought courses – a compromise measure in the face of overwhelming faculty opposition to mandatory MOT courses. May 8 saw the passage of a new statement of academic principles for the University.

The MOT courses would wither away for lack of funding in the 1970s, and the faculty would not remove the swimming requirement for another few years.

The next day, May 9, President Heffner resigned for personal reasons, saying at the time, “I have simply reached the conclusion that I do not enjoy being a University president.” But he has said, both then and now, his decision was unrelated to the passage of the New Curriculum.

“Seldom in the history of Brown University have so many worked so long for so much,” declared The Herald of May 9, paraphrasing Winston Churchill. A student-led movement had brought about fundamental changes in the Brown curriculum – “the faculty never would have done anything that sweeping on its own,” Crossgrove said.

But why was it so successful – and peaceful – at Brown?

Why it happened

“We did a number of things, not just educational reform” at Brown, Magaziner said. Students were active in protesting the Vietnam War, attempting to remove the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps from campus and protesting racial discrimination at the University.

Dec. 5, 1968 saw 65 black students walk out of the University in protest of the campus’s lack of diversity. According to Edward Ahearn, professor of comparative literature, students and faculty went on strike for several weeks in 1970 after the U.S. bombing of Cambodia.

“The ferment caused by these other things also made people think about” curricular reform, Maxwell said, adding he thinks many students saw “the possibility of this institutional change (in the New Curriculum) as part of a larger change in society.” The energies of the 1960s found expression at Brown in, among other things, a movement for curricular reform, as it did at other institutions as well.

But in sharp contrast to events on many campuses across the nation, movements at Brown remained largely peaceful.

“Comparatively, the Brown confrontations were terribly civilized. It was nothing like the violence that happened at Columbia, Harvard and Cornell,” said Heffner, who led Brown from 1966 to 1969.

Spoehr said Brown’s small size made it possible for administrators and students to have face-to-face relationships, and made it difficult for either side to demonize the other and create an “us-and-them” mentality.

“In terms of making a conversation possible, it was pretty close to an ideal environment,” Spoehr said.

Another factor was the character of the University leadership. Grieder and Borts described previous presidents, such as Henry Wriston and Barnaby Keeney, as “autocrats” with domineering styles and personalities. In contrast, President Heffner was “not a strong authoritarian leader,” Grieder said.

“I was certainly not an autocrat. I was willing to listen to both sides of any argument,” Heffner said. “I would hope our willingness to discuss and compromise was helpful” in preventing violence, he added.

“He was a person you could reason with, and he was flexible and respectful of what students had to say, and so on, so I think in a way he was a very good president for that time,” Magaziner said.

Another distinctive feature of the curriculum reform movement at Brown was its actual success in convincing the University to make fundamental and lasting changes.

Grieder said the faculty seemed to sense that change was necessary, and Spoehr agreed that “Brown was a place that was ready to hear this … so the suggestion fell on fertile soil.”

But the key to the movement’s success seems to have been Magaziner’s leadership – helping to develop the proposals for reform, organizing the student body to push for action and guiding the proposals through passage by the faculty.

“His leadership was crucial,” Heffner said.

Magaziner “managed to politicize the issue without forcing it to become stridently ideological,” Grieder said, and was “an astute politician” in terms of harnessing the energy of the student body and directing it for change.

“Ira was definitely the one,” Crossgrove said.

The curricular reforms of 1969 have proved especially durable, and have been largely unchanged for over 35 years. The energies of the turbulent 1960s – at least in part – found a peaceful and ultimately successful outlet at Brown in the New Curriculum.

“This was a godsend for us. It was Brown’s lightning rod that kept the building from being struck and burning down,” Grieder said.