Simon ’16: Open curriculum for whom?

Opinions Editor
Sunday, September 13, 2015

President Christina Paxson P’19 was not shy about encouraging first-years to avail themselves of everything Brown’s widely trumpeted open curriculum has to offer at Convocation. But she delivered her speech with such reckless abandon in regard to today’s career landscape that it would be a moral failure on my part to withhold criticizing what should have been addressed years ago, which is the University’s choice to actively promote academic exploration for everyone rather than cautioning some students for whom a traditional discipline of study is financially more sensible.

Now before I dive into what undoubtedly already unseated many of my readers from their thrones of moral superiority, permit me to say that this is in no way a critique of students. It is a critique of the administration’s choice to turn many students into victims of what I have termed an era of “identity academia.” Like identity politics, which essentially focuses on the race, creed or color with which one identifies, identity academia follows suit by empowering students to fiercely defend their own field of study as meaningful and purposeful, oftentimes preaching that such work is not just important but necessary.

So far, doesn’t sound appalling, right? And how could it, what with all the gender inequality, rampant neo-colonialism, capitalism, widening wealth gap, widening thigh gaps, soaring obesity rates, narrowing thigh gaps, seemingly immutable patriarchy, environmental degradation, systematic this, institutionalized that and the fading prominence of modern day poets in mainstream media? All problems that ought to be attended to with equal alacrity.

I’m being facetious. Blithe, yes. I’m being sassy. I know. I’m aware of it. And now, if you’d honor me the privilege, I’m going to make my point. For many students who come from humble beginnings and somehow defied the odds by garnering a golden ticket to Brown, the initial shock of suddenly rubbing elbows with the children of America’s elite is intimidating. It’s also deceiving.

As someone who grew up in a tolerably unexceptional city (Ever heard of Beverly Hills? Yes, I grew up about 45 minutes south of society’s glitterati in a very working class suburb of Los Angeles), I entered my freshman year riding on about $45,000 of financial aid and about 45,000 reasons to study what would best give me the competitive advantage necessary in securing a well-paying job. But the inescapable allure of studying whatever I wanted was irresistible. I didn’t so much dabble as much as immerse myself in the literary arts, the visual arts, the history of the arts. I was insatiable. Couldn’t get enough art! Art art art art art! But there was something peculiar about many of my classmates who had prematurely pledged to devote their academic careers to these fields of study: Many of them could afford to.

And now, beloved reader, we have reached the heat of the meat. Not everyone should be prodded blindly into the mist of academic freedom. No, not everyone should study art. No, you probably shouldn’t concentrate in archaeology. Don’t even try. Egyptology? How do you write ‘Sayonara, baby!’ in hieroglyphs? It’s just not practical, and quite honestly, for many it’s not in the cards. And you really don’t need me to tell you this. Economics and the biological sciences continue to reign supreme as the most popular concentrations on campus. Clearly what I’m saying is not revolutionary; putting it into words apparently is.

The notion that the big boy banks and engineering conglomerates hire applicants of all disciplines is naive at best and moribund at worst. You can bet your boots that a degree in medieval studies or Emma Watson’s famed independent study on “the psychology and philosophy of how we fall in love,” as the New York Daily News reported, has about as much luster in the eyes of an Oracle recruiter as a worn dime. Watson, though, had nothing but a positive attitude when interviewed on the academic flexibility Brown afforded her, noting that the experience of exploring this apparently understudied topic “was awesome.” Yes, Emma, I believe very much that it was. I also believe that you are currently worth $60 million, became a self-made millionaire before your first zit and were raised by a well-to-do family that bankrolled your education. Clearly, your family had the means to support you if, God forbid, your decision to pursue a career in the performing arts had hit the fan. By the way, I loved you in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

Paxson’s sentiments were idealistic and dishonest, two adjectives that are more synonymous with one another than “terrible” and “abhorrent.” But such is the job of a president during a welcoming ceremony. I suppose if she had decided to jettison the traditional pablum of simultaneously reassuring nervous helicopter parents and rallying overworked and undersexed freshmen for an incredible year, and instead espoused the hard-hitting truths that black unemployment is double that for whites (10.4 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively), or that the national income earned by America’s top 1 percent has doubled since 1979, or that nepotism (read: legacy preference) unsurprisingly extends beyond the closed doors of college admissions offices and straight into Daddy’s firm (or Mommy’s, because this is 2015 after all), then her speech probably would not have radiated like the warm sunshine hug from Jesus she was going for. More’s the pity. For the sake of the freshmen, I’d have preferred something with a bit more verve. A bit more zest. A bit more bite.

The open curriculum can be called “open” only by devaluing the term. At present, it is an illusion to those who bear the burden of supporting their families in the near future. No, it’s a mirage because it not only deceives, it baits. And all I ask is that the administration shed some light on the career climate that hits post-grads from low-income families like the freight train of merciless reality it indisputably is. And then maybe, just maybe, the lost-at-sea wayfaring freshman whose struggling immigrant parents are depending on their child for a better and brighter future might not feel torn when faced with the herculean task of deciding between ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics” and ASYR 2450: “Akkadian Texts of the Bronze Age.”

Chad Simon ’16 is now concentrating in biology after his freshman year art history professor sedulously discouraged him from concentrating in the arts. He is forever grateful for Professor _______’s sagacity and plans on attending medical school in fall 2016.

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  1. This article is really fantastic.

  2. Go Chad!!!

  3. If you don’t want or candle handle the academic freedom to make mistakes then don’t go to Brown. Plain and simple. I hope no one with the power to change the curriculum listens to you.

    • Did you even read the article? He never said anything about changing the curriculum. His point was that preaching this dogma of it-doesn’t-matter-what-you-study is incredibly negligent because what you study hugely impacts your earning potential when you graduate.

      I hope someone with the power to change what students are told hears this guy loud and clear.

      • We’re a top 15 university, not a state flagship. What you study at Brown isn’t as important as doing well and developing problem solving and writing skills – things that can be done with a literary arts, art history, archeology, or classics degree – the concentrations he particularly harps on.

        This kid chose biology, which nationwide has one of the worst employment outlooks – so exactly what “amazing” career advice is he being given/following anyway? He also spends the majority of the article doing the typical “Liberal Arts is Super Dumb” ( bashing that has become quite popular in discussions of academia these days.

        • He’s going to med school anyway… it hardly matters what he chooses in the first place.

          • He’s “planning on attending,” no guarantees that he gets in when the national acceptance rate is in the 40s and Brown’s acceptance rate (which includes the DOs and foreign MDs) is in the 80s. I sure hope he didn’t write anything other than “to make money to support my family” on his why medicine essays since this column obviously says that’s the primary motivator.

          • If he’s a PLME then his own personal story could not be less relevant to this article.

            I’m guessing he has no intention of primary care when he’s done since that 45k debt is going to be way bigger by the time he’s out of medical school?

            California is a brutal state for medical school, but if he was competitive enough to get into PLME then he probably could have gotten a merit scholarship to a UCR or UCI, graduated from undergrad debt free, and then go to a UC medical school for <50% of Warren Alpert's price tag. Or even if he can't get into a UC med school, he'd probably have been a successful enough student to get into WA or some other medical school anyway and now he's just saved $45k.

          • another student says:

            How is this relevant at all? The whole point of PLME is to not have to go through the BS pre-med/med school application process.

            Anyway, he’s not complaining about the fact that he needs financial aid or saying that poorer students don’t belong at Brown; he’s just saying that the open curriculum applies to some students more than others.

  4. Ironic that Chad whines about starting college $45,000 in the hole and then picks a career field that virtually assures he’ll be $200,000 in debt by the time he completes his education.

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