Liang ’19: STEM courseloads betray the open curriculum

Staff Columnist
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

“Shakespeare is stupid.”

This came out of the mouth of a good friend of mine, an applied math concentrator, over lunch one day. Having just survived shopping period, everyone at the table was comparing class schedules. Between the humanities and science, technology, engineering and math concentrators, it was like we lived in two different worlds.

Here at Brown, arguably one of the shining bastions of a true liberal education, STEM students are trampling left and right over the open curriculum. Justifiably concerned about their grade point averages and career prospects, students are slowly turning the university into what one sociology professor called, “a full-on vocational school,” as I heard at the lecture “The Open Curriculum: Open for Whom?” More of us are choosing to isolate ourselves in respective departments, venturing out only to dutifully fulfill what Brown or medical school or graduate school requires of us.

Research shows that 97.6 percent of surveyed members of the Brown class of 2007 took two or more classes in humanities, but I have a nagging feeling — informed by nothing but my personal observations — that for many of those STEM kids surveyed, those humanities were easy-A classes. Ask any pre-medical student or engineer on campus what English course they took to fill their requirements, and they’ll mostly give you the same two or three course names. I shudder when I think of humanities classes with more than a hundred students, where time is filled with movie watching and light 40-page readings.

That’s not to say that brilliant professors don’t teach these classes or that the content is insignificant in scope or quality. I just want to point out that there’s a real disconnect between the classes we want to take and the classes we should take, especially for certain hard science concentrators. Lots of the capped courses that are designed to allow students to take full advantage of the freedom Brown offers sit half-empty. Interest among science concentrators dwindles, not necessarily because of lack of interest, but because of curved grading, essay requirements or — ­even worse — having to actively discuss and participate after a four-hour organic chemistry lab of boiling cumin. (I’m speaking from personal experience here.)

As a pre-med student, I skate a thin line between Brown idealism and flat-out insanity. I end up taking five courses each semester with both science and humanities courses that interest me. In the end, nevertheless, I rely on that good ol’ Satisfactory/No Credit crutch to barely survive English so that I can focus on chemistry, statistics and biology, which are all prioritized in STEM graduate and medical applications. Brown doesn’t calculate GPA, but believe me when I say a whole bunch of us pray to our calculators around finals period. I think my heart is in the right place, but this isn’t sustainable.

Is this really what the open curriculum was designed for? Back in the 1960s and ’70s, I’m sure very few would have imagined how encompassing and competitive the technology sector would become. Now, every STEM concentrator and their grandmother is dreaming of Silicon Valley or medical school. What was designed as an intellectual experiment in liberal learning has become an easy work-around for those who water down their educations for the ever-so-tempting chance of a stable, high-paying job. Blame it partly on a society that favors some types of education over others, but also put some responsibility on the students who take a class for all the wrong reasons:

“I’m taking it because it’s causing me to critically analyze systems of the human experience, and because it may have a lasting impact both on my perceived values as an individual and on my direction as I attempt to enact change in the narrative of this world.”

“I’m taking it because it’s easy.”

Which one do you hear more often? See my point?

Not to mention, communication and critical analysis of written work is fundamentally important for STEM careers; our discoveries and inventions have the ability to change the world, but only if we can defend our work and articulate our methodologies and theories to the public. Taking hard humanities classes is an investment — hell, even a risk — but can pay off in the long run. Of course, no sane 20-year-old is going to consider the “long-term investment” when all those job applications and bills are sitting right there.

So what to do? Brown shouldn’t enact more requirements or else risk looking like any other watered-down liberal arts sellout. But University officials can take another good hard look at the advising pathways that are designed to support the open curriculum. Faculty members, especially STEM advisors, should be trained to at least remind students of their moral obligation to live up to the philosophy of the open curriculum. There’s currently a huge discrepancy between what Brown promises from advisors and advisors’ actual commitment to advising a Brown education; as the first academic ambassadors on campus, some faculty members are lacking in their first-year advising and often fail to follow up with students and potential new fields of inquiry. According to The Herald’s 2015 poll, a majority of students only meet with their advisors one to two times per year. I’m therefore also a big supporter of cross-listed courses and new interdisciplinary classes, which should be designed to fit STEM concentration needs while providing real-world, rigorous discussion and analytical skills.

It’s easy and perhaps a cop-out to tell us that we can take whatever we want. The challenge and the shining hope of Brown is that, with proper guidance, we will decide to take what we need.

Of course, those solutions will take time. So right now I’m a huge supporter of the “Exchange Dartboard Student Brown” method. You find anyone in a field completely unlike yours and you throw darts at their schedule, then find a way to work that class into your workload. That’s how I ended up in HIST1110: “Chinese Imperial History.” But hey, at least I got a history concentrator to take physics with me.

Mark Liang ’19 can be reached, for anyone other than his medical school admission officers, at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to