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Open Curriculum at 50

By and
Friday, May 24, 2019

Amid the sunny celebration of the 50th anniversary of the open curriculum that took place earlier this month, it can be hard to remember how much controversy the original proposals for curricular reform brought to campus.

Ira Magaziner ’69 and Elliot Maxwell ’68 laid the groundwork for the open curriculum, authoring a report that proposed fundamental changes to Brown’s educational philosophy and structure. The year before Magaziner and Maxwell began working on the report, University President Ray Heffner told an audience at convocation that “the University is not a participatory democracy and never will be.”

It’s a far cry from the attitude that administrators have today when it comes to the University’s signature draw for prospective students. While many colleges require a supplemental essay that generally answers why you want to attend the school, Brown’s essay specifically centers the open curriculum, asking applicants: What do you hope to experience at Brown through the open curriculum, and what do you hope to contribute to the Brown community?

Students and faculty members in the intervening 50 years have continued to be impassioned on the subject of the open curriculum, engaging in several curricular reviews since the Magaziner-Maxwell report. In the spirit of the 50th anniversary, The Herald has opened its archives and talked with student leaders past and present to shed light on the legacy of the open curriculum on campus.

A history of openness

Maxwell situates the report within the broader social context of the late 1960s, which he describes as “looking at institutions” like the University “and questioning them fundamentally.” In this act of critical research, the authors realized there was “relatively little discussion of teaching and learning in the University.” More specifically, the report bemoaned a lack of coherence in the University brought upon by arbitrary distribution requirements and the promotion of “narrow professionalism” instead of a “unified curriculum.”

By the time Magaziner and Maxwell released the report in March 1968, the 400-page behemoth recommended sweeping reforms: abolishing the A-E grading scale in favor of the “dossier system,” a portfolio of papers and projects with professor feedback, in addition to introducing mandatory “Modes of Thought” courses for multiple disciplines, small seminars that presented “methods and values of approaches to knowledge and phenomena” instead of large swaths of information for memorization.

It wasn’t until the fall that this research project catalyzed campus activism. Maxwell graduated, but Magaziner began drumming up popular support for the tenets of the report. Magaziner had already been elected president of the Camarian Club, a student organization that negotiated with the administration, and campaigned on a promise of curricular reform. To effect change, students needed to win over faculty who had the power to vote on new course and grading structures.

But by October, there was little indication the report would garner the faculty support needed for implementation. “The biggest problem is that most faculty members can’t see educationally outside their department,” Magaziner told The Herald Oct. 7. A week later, Heffner refused to endorse any of the report’s proposals: “I don’t see … a need for a complete and radical program of change.”

Yet students continued organizing. In early November 1968, 700 students demonstrated on the Main Green for curricular changes; by the end of the month, more than 1,000 showed up for a similar rally. Over the course of the semester, 200 undergraduates signed up for shifts to visit faculty and lobby for reform.

Students took a specific interest in the report because “this was the stuff of their lives,” Maxwell said, adding that the breadth of undergraduate involvement “helped create an environment where student interest was given more credibility than it often had.”

By December, Heffner sensed enough agitation to create a Special Committee on Curricular Philosophy comprising administrators who studied the educational climate and produced recommendations. In under six months, the group sent an interim report to the overseeing Curriculum Committee, which then relayed a final set of motions to a faculty vote.

On May 7, 300 faculty members gathered in Sayles Hall to deliberate for over seven hours, eventually approving reforms, including the abolition of all distribution requirements, the ability to take any course with the satisfactory/no credit grading option and the addition of optional “Modes of Thought” courses.

“Modes of Thought” courses were particularly contentious among faculty members who were concerned about burdensome workloads, but the committee decided that making them optional would be an acceptable compromise. Though not all of the report’s suggestions were approved and other proposals were added, the faculty vote was seen as a direct result of student research and activism. Most of the changes remain in place today.

In the midst of curriculum reform, University Hall also witnessed significant upheaval. One day after the faculty vote, Heffner resigned, telling administrators: “I have simply reached the conclusion that I do not enjoy being a university president.”

From 1969 to present

While the ethos of the open curriculum has remained largely unchanged since its 1969 implementation, some curricular details have been revamped over the past 50 years.

For Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01, the open curriculum was never meant to be static. “The beauty of the open curriculum is that it was set up as a dynamic process, something that can be adapted as the times and students change,” he said.

Multiple changes occured in the 1980s, such as the addition of the writing requirement. In 1988, faculty increased the minimum number of courses required to graduate from 28 to 30 after noticing that most students completed the bare minimum number of requirements instead of “using the cushion to explore challenging classes,” according to a 2009 Herald article.

Other curricular adjustments after 1969 include the creation of First Year Seminars and an increase in the number of concentration options. “Modes of Thought” courses, a central part of Magaziner and Maxwell’s original proposal, were officially revoked in 2009, 40 years after the proposal’s adoption. Yet that same year, a Herald article noted that “Modes of Thought” courses had been “virtually absent from Brown’s curriculum for two decades.”

Reflecting on the impact of the curricular changes, Maxwell said he hopes University students will continue to practice “self-consciousness” and question the shape of the intuitions around them.

Today, prospective students are sometimes initially attracted to the open curriculum because they view it as a way to avoid subjects they dislike and think in terms of “what they can use it to not do,” said Aidan O’Shea ’19, who works in the Office of Admission. Yet in his experience, Brown students more often ask questions like “What can I use the open curriculum to do?” and “How does (the open curriculum) open up doors for me?”

O’Shea, also a Meiklejohn peer advising program leader, noted that first-years are sometimes hesitant to take advantage of the open curriculum and experiment with their education. As “advocates of the open curriculum,” Meiklejohn peer advisors are urged to give students an “extra push” to step outside of their comfort zone. O’Shea said that Meiklejohns are encouraged to do so by telling their advisees about a particular course they loved or sharing a personal experience they had “taking a class outside of their main academic interest (and sharing) why that’s valuable and what they learned from it.”

Advising and community are integral to the functioning of the open curriculum, which “is about partnership,” Zia said. “We really do have this community where we help to advise one another. We help to lift up shared learning. That’s the only way that you can support an individualized education.”

Dean of Admission Logan Powell attributes the enduring relevance of the open curriculum to its power to tackle society’s biggest problems. “All of the biggest issues right now can’t be solved by one discipline alone, … they require interdisciplinary thought” that the flexible curriculum offers, he said.

Over the course of the next year, the Dean of the College’s office is planning to host “events that help us to reflect back but also to think forward about the curriculum at Brown,” Zia said. “What’s really important about the open curriculum is that it was defined by a philosophy and a purpose that continue today.”

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