Ha ’18: Is the open curriculum solely for show?

Opinions Columnist
Sunday, February 22, 2015

A few weeks prior to my return to Providence at the beginning of this semester, I decided to revisit my old essays that I had written as part of my college application.

While scrolling through the folder, I stumbled upon one of the drafts for the “Why Brown” prompt. I remembered that I lackadaisically Googled Brown University and chose to write about the most famous aspect of the University’s undergraduate program: the open curriculum. How original.

Let me share it with you. Here is part of what I had written, verbatim:

“Brown’s open curriculum bravely and innovatively approaches the building of the curricula, helping its students minimize the risk of being confined in a stubborn, traditional academic setting. When we navigate our own ways, we choose the road that we — not others — believe to be right, possibly eliminating regret for the unwalked paths.”

Other than the fact that my senior self sounded awfully superficial, there was yet another reason to dislike the piece: I was not fully convinced by my own words.

The last sentence bothered me the most. “Eliminating regret for the unwalked paths”? What did that even mean? Does the open curriculum actually achieve that?

Is the open curriculum truly beneficial, or is it only flashy, doing more harm than good?

My mind began to change, especially during my first few weeks back at Brown, when I met a first-year who was so fiercely engaged in computer science that he would not consider any coursework outside the department. He even planned to satisfy the writing requirement, which is the University’s last resort to prevent students from doing exactly what he was doing, with a computer science course that had the WRIT designation.

I cannot think of anyone who would, with confidence, say that an 18-year-old who has been in college for no more than a year is insightful enough to set up his entire future wisely and resolutely. Even if he did possess this knowledge, a course or two in different fields would surely contribute to some well-roundedness.

This freedom allows students to make decisions for the wrong reasons. Money is a determining factor for many college students trying to decide their career paths. Students who are fearful of the uncertain futures that non-STEM fields bring may restrict themselves to concentrations that often lead to well-paying careers.

This is evident in the data provided by Brown: Only 12 percent of the applicants for the class of 2019 intend to study arts or humanities.

Money is important, but it should not dictate the means of pursuing happiness. Perhaps the University should reflect on whether or not its education model enables students to see things more essential than money.

Though a bit cliched, there are many elements of life more important than money. Last week, for example, I spoke with my uncle who is supposedly going through his “job adolescent” period. Before explaining what he meant, he described some characteristics of “life adolescence”: labile emotions, an urge for independence and an added spice of vulnerability here and there. These are all rooted in questioning — and thereby reshaping — one’s identity.

He said characteristics of adolescence in workplaces are not very different. An engaged and fervent worker suddenly, when things start feeling comfortable and consequently more mundane, falls into a spiral of mannerism. Passion loses its heat.

This is the working man’s fait accompli. Familiarity gives birth to tiredness and boredom, and emotionally healthy minds will then often contemplate the unwalked paths, asking, “Was this the right choice?”

Regret, though sometimes inevitable, can be minimized if the University provides students with a diverse education in their early college years that will allow them to search for different options when they face career challenges.

In contrast to what I wrote to gain admission, I now sense many dangers related to the open curriculum.

Since its inception in 1969, the open curriculum, despite the stated purpose of encouraging undergraduates to “become self-reflective,” has allowed students to avoid taking certain courses and become restricted by their unfounded and distorted ideas.

It may sound ironic if Brown, a school that prides itself on its unique student-crafted education, begins mandating that underclassmen take courses in certain departments, making the education seem more traditional.

But opposition for the mere sake of opposition itself should, at all times, be avoided. We must ensure that our own futile barriers are not restricting us.

What is more important: freedom to attend lectures of taste during college years, or the flexibility to change paths when necessary? One is fairly short-term, the other much longer.

We also need to consider what it means to be a Brown student or alum. Lacking in rhetoric, logic, math or science should surely not define us. Some familiarity and experience in diverse fields should be a must.

We must make sure that students experience for themselves all the possibilities. Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer during the 1st century B.C., once wisely noted that “no one knows what he can do until he tries.”

Of course, learning is most effective when it is driven by self-motivation. But the University does its best to help students, rather than carelessly observe them. The open curriculum can be great only if it is not abused.

Our liberal academic environment is one of the factors that most distinguishes Brown from many other schools, and we should cherish that. But the University needs to ensure that its policies are actually for the students’ own good, not just for show.

Nearsightedness is one of life’s most dangerous traits — narrow perspective another. The University must reflect on whether the true fruits of college are being preserved through the open curriculum.

David Ha ’18 is doing his best to broaden his perspective. He can be reached at

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  1. This is the price of freedom. If you can’t even figure out how to sensibly make the simple decision of what classes to take, adulthood will probably be frightening.

    Besides, all my friends at other schools are downright jealous of me – no brainless distribution requirements for me. I’m always the lucky one. Honestly, what do classes fulfilling those requirements entitled “Math and Society” say?

    Also, money is kind of everything when tuition costs over a quarter million dollars.

  2. Thayer Walker says:

    No, but Chris Paxson is.

  3. “Some familiarity and experience in diverse fields should be a must.”
    While my personal educational belief aligns with yours, this is just that — *personal* educational beliefs. Your article is merely trying to enforce your own values onto other people.

    Moreover, I disagree with this quote: “Perhaps the University should reflect on whether or not its education model enables students to see things more essential than money.” This is not the fault of Brown’s Open Curriculum; it’s the fault of society, of capitalism. And in fact, if you look around, Brown overall is actually not as money-obsessed as some other institutes (e.g. Penn).

  4. Like the author, I also halfheartedly wrote about the OC in my essay. I don’t believe the OC has as great a value as some of its proponents would like to attribute to it, but I’m not complaining about it, either. It helps students avoid general ed requirements they would otherwise loathe and that’s about all it does.

    No more science classes for this student!

  5. “I cannot think of anyone who would, with confidence, say that an 18-year-old who has been in college for no more than a year is insightful enough to set up his entire future wisely and resolutely.” I would absolutely agree with this statement, but would counter by saying the chosen course of study for an undergraduate by no means determines that student’s “entire future.”

    The argument that students pursue concentrations that land them jobs is one that I hear, but one whose fault lies more in the inability of the university to assure students of their professional viability than it does in the freedom of the Open Curriculum.

    While it is not explicitly the responsibility of the university to aid students in securing internships and jobs, it is a responsibility that Brown already accepts and recognizes as an essential function of the modern university. Better academic advising *and career advising* would allow students to see how much freedom they really do have in exploration of courses as an undergraduate.

    Those of us who utilize the Open Curriculum to explore topics in a wide range of fields and to build a portfolio of undergraduate coursework that is truly interdisciplinary should not be punished for the actions of those students who are short-sighted in choosing courses, nor should we be punished for the university’s inability to communicate the power of a liberal arts or humanities degree.

    I also wrote about the Open Curriculum in my Why Brown essay question, and to this day see the Open Curriculum as not only the reason that I chose to attend Brown but also a primary contributor to my happiness and success throughout my 4 years here.

    For those of us who take the Open Curriculum seriously, it is not “for show.” It continues to be a facet of Brown’s culture that differentiates us from peer institutions, enables students to explore burgeoning fields at the intersection of disparate disciplines, and makes me proud to call this place my academic home.

    I dearly hope that the Open Curriculum will continue to be upheld as a hallmark of a Brown education.

  6. David,

    While I’d agree that a broad education is valuable, you haven’t demonstrated with sufficient evidence that Brown doesn’t encourage such an education.

    You mention that only 12% of applicants intended to study humanities or arts – this is just an input, not an output. Many students change their minds between application and graduation. How many students actually graduate with a humanities or arts concentration? As an applications interviewer I know that intended concentrations are often an applicants best guess or a choice among many options. How many STEM concentrators take a non-trivial number of humanities and arts courses?

    Furthermore, the open curriculum is about the freedom to choose the path you feel is right for you. As an adult, it’s up to you to make decisions that you feel are in your best interest. Not everyone will have the same set of goals and therefore there will be differences in opinion (breadth vs. depth).

    Brown already offers the opportunity for “students [to] experience for themselves all the possibilities.” Consider that Brown has several systems in place to advise Freshmen students – Meiklejohn program and faculty advisors. They are there to provide students with advice, of which course selection is a core component. There’s also the diverse student body – I tried many classes that weren’t initially on my radar simply based on peer suggestion.

    In addition to advisers and peer advice, there’s the two week shopping period, which lets students explore any class they want with very limited risk beyond perhaps some extra homework. On top of that there is the plethora of student groups and activities that span many fields of work and study.

    As ’15 argues, there is probably more the university could be doing to bolster confidence in securing jobs post-graduation. But, there is an opportunity for improvement here university-wide, not just limited to the Arts and Humanities. Perhaps as a broader society there is greater perceived uncertainty in Humanities and Arts post-grad, but it’s not as if Brown is giving STEM preferential treatment in its efforts to improve professional ties.

    I would encourage everyone to consider fully the benefits of the open curriculum and the systems that are put in place to encourage exploration at Brown. Brown is a unique place where there are engineers that study Egyptology, and writers that study quantum theory. Let’s not change that by restricting freedom of choice under the banner of forced diversification.

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