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Tennis ’14: Why Brown shouldn’t have minors

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, November 7, 2012


In 2009, Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron presented a paper at the University of Warsaw titled “The Free Elective Curriculum.” In this paper, she discussed Brown’s curriculum and the philosophies that guide the University’s academic vision. Bergeron noted that Brown’s philosophy “gives students freedom to choose, the freedom to fail and the responsibility to direct their own education.” Indeed, Bergeron described Brown students as “architects” of their undergraduate courses of study. For this reason, we are largely on our own in determining the structure of our time here.

Yes, we have concentrations. Many members of the Brown community have debated whether the existence of concentrations is consistent with the main tenets of the New Curriculum. Perhaps not, but we need them regardless. The realities of life today necessitate that students display some sort of structured academic training. So I will not discuss the validity of the concentration system at Brown. Instead, I want to address an argument raised about the validity of minors within the Brown curriculum. Herald columnist Jaclyn Katz ’14 argued in favor of minors (“Why Brown should have minors,” Oct. 2), and she deserves credit for challenging the status quo. After all, that’s what our curriculum is meant to encourage. Though many of her points were reasonable, in the end, she didn’t convince me that minors would bring any real value to the Brown academic experience.

Many colleges and universities include minors in their curricula to allow students to take classes in different academic areas. Many higher education programs make it difficult to explore courses outside of one’s major, but declaring a minor in another department facilitates study in that area. Obviously, Brown’s New Curriculum was created and implemented with the goal of maximizing intellectual exploration and minimizing the pigeonholing of students by their primary academic focus. This concept is personified in the students we meet everyday: the visual arts concentrator who is pre-med or the chemical engineer who enjoys immersing himself in Russian literature. Clearly, the absence of minors doesn’t stop those of us with varied interests.

Katz writes that minors would offer students the chance to develop yet another focus and then receive recognition of it on their diplomas. But that’s exactly what double concentrations are for. Katz’s response would be that double concentrations are a “burden” for students. I take issue with this idea. It seems that a minor would allow a students to bulk up their resumes without expending the same amount of energy that a double concentration would require. If a students wish to explore a second academic field in-depth, they should possess the motivation to do so without the promise of an extra line on a resume. And if students strongly desire that extra line, they should have to work for it by fulfilling the requirements of the entire concentration.

If you are studying at Brown, you should not be looking for an easy way out of anything. You got here – you know how to work. So do the work. Double concentrations exist to acknowledge the dedication and determination they demand. And furthermore, double concentrating doesn’t have to be a big deal, if you are truly interested in the concentration. Many departments have ten or fewer requirements. So if you do have the determination to take on a second concentration, it won’t kill you to power through.

One noteworthy feature of Katz’s argument is the phenomenon of foreign language students discontinuing their language study, seeing it as pointless for their concentration. It’s true that at schools offering minors, many students fulfill them in a foreign language. In this case, foreign language certificates could be a worthwhile addition to our curriculum to encourage foreign language study, but this need not amount to a full-fledged minors system. It seems that the University’s discussion of these certificates, which would distinguish students who achieve a certain level of language competency, has been tabled for the present. I agree that the issue of students abandoning foreign language study merits attention but I disagree that a minor system would solve this problem at Brown.

Katz lauds Harvard’s system of “secondary fields,” which allows students to design a course of study outside of their concentrations in order to “pursue another academic passion.” What Katz seems to ignore, is that you can do this whether there is an official system in place or not. At Brown, as an architect of your undergraduate education, you determine its direction. If an academic passion is truly a passion – and not just a platform for accruing credentials – then it shouldn’t matter if the greater world knows about it. And here’s another reason that concentrations exist – to provide students with something to display to the world upon graduation. Of course, there is also the argument that a Brown diploma itself is proof enough of a job well done.

Remember Dean Bergeron’s speech. It is your responsibility to direct your education. You don’t need an arbitrary academic system in place to do so.



Maggie Tennis ’14 is currently “powering through” concentration number two.

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  1. You have grossly distorted Katz’s argument. She mentions that double concentrations are a burden for students who discover a second interest later in their Brown years. You conveniently left that part out. This is manipulative and poorly written.

  2. at least have the decency not to post anonymously. your comment is manipulative and poorly written and distorts the author’s argument.

  3. Read Katz’s article again. your “loopholes” in your argument are all taken care of in Katz’s article

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