University News

The New Curriculum: ready for new times?

The New Curriculum at Forty: Part one of four in a series

By
Metro Editor
Monday, April 13, 2009

It’s not so new anymore.

By the time the New Curriculum turns 40 later this spring, it will have gone through several revisions. But challenges presented by the changing and growing University still need to be addressed.

It began in 1966 with a group of students unhappy with traditional methods of education. The New Curriculum overtook Brown’s campus at the end of the decade, eventually reshaping much of the University’s existing structure. Distribution requirements, grades, boundaries between disciplines and the role of students in education all underwent fundamental change — or were scrapped entirely.

Decades after it was adopted, the New Curriculum remains the organizing philosophy of the Brown education. Its longevity and popularity serve as a testament to its timelessness. But how it will evolve in the future depends on a rapidly changing world and educational climate.

Since 1969, the New Curriculum has been reviewed and re-reviewed, both as a whole — most recently by the Task Force for Undergraduate Education — and in pieces. Those reviews have repeatedly affirmed the goals and principles of the New Curriculum but have sought to buttress it, especially to improve its advising and update it for the 21st century.

“Fundamentally, there was a structural change that took place in the relation of the students to the University,” said Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10, who, along with Elliot Maxwell ’68, led a Group Independent Study Project — the first of its kind — that developed the backbone of the New Curriculum.

The existing model was “fundamentally flawed” and was not serving the needs of students, said Magaziner, who was president of the Cammarian Club, a predecessor of today’s Undergraduate Council of Students.

The ability to take any course Satisfactory/No Credit and the elimination of D’s, F’s and pluses and minuses were meant to de-emphasize “arbitrary letters and gradations,” Magaziner said.

An “explosion of knowledge” in the late 60s, too, meant that the approach to learning was as important as the facts of the day, Magaziner said, since those facts would quickly become outdated.

Eighty students and 15 professors signed up for Magaziner’s and Maxwell’s project in the spring of 1968. They continued their work over that summer, eventually issuing a 418-page “Draft of a Working Paper for Education at Brown University,” with 20 authors listed.

President Ray Heffner responded by creating a committee of faculty and students to make recommendations on changes to the curriculum. The committee submitted those recommendations in April 1969, after which it was up to the faculty to decide what, if anything, to change.

The faculty meetings climaxed on May 7. Classes were cancelled. The Herald reported at the time that, after a seven-hour discussion, the faculty voted to accept most of the committee’s recommendations.

But the faculty did not accept all of them. The New Curriculum was not adopted as it was initially proposed, and what the faculty approved that day was “already a filtered vision,” said Fiona Heckscher ’09, a member of the Task Force on Undergraduate Eduction,  which issued its final report in September.

But since the adoption of the New Curriculum, a number of structural changes have made their way into Brown academic life, even if none of them have radically altered it.

Courses introduced to show students the methodology of different fields — called Modes of Thought courses — were never required because of a lack of resources. The number of such courses available and the students enrolled in them dwindled rapidly after the first years of the New Curriculum.

Other measures have been added to the curriculum. In 1988, the faculty upped the number of courses required to graduate from 28 to 30 after finding that students often finished with the bare minimum, rather than using the cushion to explore challenging classes.

Am increasing number of independent concentrations have become regular offerings, reducing the number of students who choose to craft their own major. First-Year Seminars were introduced to increase the number of small classes for freshmen. A writing requirement was added in the 80s.

Subsequent reviews of the New Curriculum have offered improvements and modifications, Magaziner said, but have maintained its spirit.

President Ruth Simmons agreed. “Every stage of planning at Brown is returning to the source, in a way,” she said.

Administrators continue to ask, Simmons added, “Have we lived up to the promise? And if not, what can we add?”

‘An Achilles’ heel’

From the beginning, Maxwell said, advising was seen as a weakness of the New Curriculum. Without requirements, he said, students need plenty of help in an “unguided jungle of offerings.”

Numerous reviews of the University’s advising program have agreed, including two reports which reviewed the curriculum as a whole. A 1990 report authored by Sheila Blumstein, then dean of the College, identified a need for better sophomore advising and a way to incentivize advising by the faculty. Likewise, the final report of the Task Force last year named advising “the most critical dimension of the undergraduate experience,” recommending in particular that improvements be made to advising for sophomore, transfer and international students.

“There was anxiety about it from the outset,” said Professor of Comparative Literature Edward Ahearn, who has taught at Brown since 1963. Professors’ divergent responsibilities in publishing, teaching and advising exacerbate the problem, he said. The Task Force agreed that advising failures could be the result of an increased obligation to teaching and research.

Blumstein, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences, called advising “an Achilles’ heel” of the New Curriculum. She said that, due to recent expansion of the faculty, it is hard for both new and old professors to keep track of everything they need to know to advise. The Task Force, of which Blumstein was a member, recommended in last year’s report that more information on course offerings and Brown’s educational philosophy be available for advisers.

Simmons said failures in advising are among her biggest concerns.

“As a president and professor, I worry about students who fall through the cracks,” she said. “However much we love our approach, it’s not for everybody.”

Simmons said she hears from such students that they need more direction. But she added that the point of the New Curriculum was to create options, not to dictate a course for students.

Still, Simmons said, “We ought not to put them on the trash heap and say, ‘Too bad.
‘”

“Because we provide this freedom,” Blumstein said, “there are students who choose not to study broadly,” though she added that this concern doesn’t warrant adding restrictions to the curriculum. Concentrators in the humanities, especially, tend to take few science courses, according to statistics. Blumstein’s 1990 report suggested encouraging students to take more science courses.

A student-oriented system demands good advising, Magaziner said.

“The decisions are ultimately theirs, but they can be informed decisions,” he said.

New goals, changing goals

Advising is the greatest concern for administrators, faculty and students, but it is not the only one.

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, who chaired the Task Force, said she was concerned about whether students take advantage of the full range of opportunities at Brown, though she said records show that students tend to broadly distribute their coursework even without requirements.

According to Magaziner, one of the priorities of the original GISP was to rid the University of a perceived focus on pre-professionalism. Simmons echoed this, saying that such an emphasis is especially strong among first-generation college students and intensifies during harsh economic climates — like today’s.

But in these times, she said, the kind of study championed by the New Curriculum is exactly what is needed.

Other external factors could both add to and detract from the strength of the New Curriculum. Increased pressure on faculty to bring in research money must not distract from teaching, Blumstein said.

“That would kill Brown,” she said. “Right now we have our own niche, and it’s a good one.”

Maxwell said research and teaching, in the right circumstances, are “mutually reinforcing.” Research addresses the creation of knowledge, he said, while teaching disseminates that knowledge.

Similarly, Blumstein said, the growth of the faculty “affords lots more opportunities” for both undergraduate and graduate students. At the same time, she said, too much growth could undermine the sense of community.

The Plan for Academic Enrichment, Simmons’ wide-ranging blueprint to improve Brown’s academics, called for 100 new faculty positions.

Another of the Plan’s goals, to increase Brown’s profile on the international stage, “fits ideally” with the New Curriculum, Simmons said. Internationalization could be to the curriculum today what the spirit of the 60s was to its original formulation, she said.

If Brown did not look abroad, she added, the curriculum would become outdated. “It can only make it richer, better, more relevant,” Simmons said.

The Task Force also suggested promoting informal interactions between students and professors. Increased student-faculty collaboration on research could also solve some advising problems, Heckscher said.

Both students and faculty need to take extra steps to ensure that a collaborative culture doesn’t “peter out,” Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 said.

But even with many small changes, the core of the New Curriculum has remained intact for 40 years.

“The principles, I think, still hold,” Magaziner said. “The idea of taking responsibility for your own education. … The idea of choosing to concentrate in a certain area as well as having the flexibility to discover across a number of areas. The basic idea of a liberal arts education as a good preparation for life.”

The test for changes to the curriculum, Maxwell said, should be whether the change is right or wrong, not whether it fits into the New Curriculum.

“It shouldn’t be enshrined,” he said. “It’s supposed to be alive.”