Columns, Opinions

Esemplare ’18: Why S/NC is failing us

Staff Columnist
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When applying to colleges, the thing I liked most about Brown was its promise of academic freedom. As I toiled through my final year of high school, I had grown weary of rigid course requirements. At a Brown information session that year, I was enthralled by the promise of an open curriculum. After being accepted, I prepared to fill my semesters with the pursuit of my own curiosities.

This vision, for the most part, has become reality. Brown’s academic freedom is unmatched among its peers, and  its influence on my college years is unmistakable. But when it comes to Brown’s promise of liberation from educational constraints, the S/NC option is at least as important, and considerably more famous, than the open curriculum. Brown’s allure to the average observer as a pioneer in academic freedom hinges on its near mythical “pass / fail” system, and I have had many friends and relatives make the all-too-common mistake of forgetting that Brown has grades at all. On campus, this option is so deeply ingrained in the University’s culture that we seldom question its influence or merit. When challenged by outsiders to defend it, we scoff at these misguided students of less enlightened universities, who simply cannot grasp the richness and beauty of a true liberal arts education — of learning pursued for learning’s sake.

During my first semester on campus, I shared this perspective. I enrolled in a computer science class with the S/NC grading option, and everything was as it should be. I had taken a class outside of my major, with which I had no previous experience, without fear that such exploration would hurt my GPA, and I had learned a great deal that might otherwise have gone unlearned.

Yet the S/NC system does have flaws worth discussing. Of course, as soon as I heard about the S/NC grading option, I knew that people would take advantage of it for less noble academic reasons, such as to avoid a bad grade in a difficult class or simply as a workload reduction strategy. The existence of this type of misuse alone presents some reasonable objections to the system, but it is not my biggest qualm with it. The point of academic freedom, after all, is that students are responsible for their own education. This means that if Brown is committed to academic freedom, it will have to accept that students will not always utilize its academic system responsibly. You cannot give students the freedom to explore and challenge themselves without also giving them the freedom not to do so.

My most fundamental concern with the S/NC option is not with those that would abuse it, but rather with those who approach it with pure intentions. The concern is the result of another hallmark of a Brown education — namely, its rigor.

The reality of the workload at Brown and comparable universities is that students are not realistically expected to complete every assignment over the course of the year. I have frequently had teachers and classmates suggest that it would be impossible to read every book or article assigned in full, and that skimming and occasionally skipping these materials was the only way to survive the semester. The value of such a model could be the subject of its own article, but in relation to the S/NC option, this system of learning can quickly become problematic. As anyone who has taken a class S/NC will confess, there comes an inevitable point in every semester when the needs of classes being taken for a grade trump any high-minded idealism that existed at the semester’s start. Indeed, to focus on readings or homework assignments for an S/NC course in the middle of a hectic semester requires a level of discipline that is borderline irresponsible. As a student parcels out inadequate time and mental resources among courses, those taken S/NC are necessarily the first casualties.

Of course, not all courses are easy to pass, and not all decisions are made with reverence for GPAs. Ultimately, I do feel that there will always be a role for the S/NC option at Brown, but I do believe the need to allow its unrestricted use is more imagined than real. Over the past three years, I have  found that, if I truly want to learn about a subject, I need to take it for a grade. I have come to believe that in education, as in all things, you sometimes need to throw yourself headfirst into something you are afraid of if you wish to grow. In Brown’s efforts to make students comfortable taking a risk, I fear they have simply made it less necessary to do so.

Nicholas Esemplare ’18 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to