Campbell ’18: Open for whom?

Staff Columnist
Monday, April 25, 2016

When I came to Brown, I was told time and again about the relaxed nature of the open curriculum. I heard stories of the guy who took every class here S/NC, the girl who decided to switch her concentration at the beginning of her senior year and of every other student, it seemed, for whom the sophomore spring concentration deadline came before she was ready to declare. 

These stories (and more) all work wonderfully to calm incoming freshmen about the academic flexibility Brown affords, yet they belie the actual nature of academics here. It is often assumed that students will have a strong enough foundation in a variety of disciplines to take the most interesting classes in each concentration. But for someone like me who went to a small public high school in southern West Virginia, this assumption is frankly ridiculous. 

For example, many science, technology, engineering and math concentrations expect you to be prepared to take MATH 0100: “Introductory Calculus, Part II” or CHEM 0330: “Equilibrium, Rate and Structure” right out of the gate just to be “on track.” Yet I took every math class available to me in high school and still felt unprepared taking MATH 0100. I am not the only one.

This tendency also pervades disciplines outside of the hard sciences. For example, the international relations concentration requires that you take six semesters of a language class at the University level to graduate. For students without significant language background, it makes the effective concentration deadline for IR a full year earlier than what is stated — if you haven’t started a language by the beginning of your sophomore year, you wont be able to finish on time. Some language departments offer accelerated tracks, but students should not need to take language courses as quickly as possible to meet basic concentration standards.

What I wasn’t told when I got here is that, for those without rigorous preparation for academics, the lackadaisical curriculum must be accompanied by an equally lackadaisical ambition. And so the stories we have been told about all of these students who came before us have a caveat: These students did this and got by, or they performed academic acrobatics to meet their goals. If you have a desire to excel, this blanket depiction of academic freedom given to Brown students is, in fact, quite misleading.

For many of us, the road to success is longer, so the ability to experiment in the classroom is curtailed.

This isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with someone who takes every class S/NC.  Everyone places importance on different things, and these students doubtlessly learn a great deal. One of the wonderful things about Brown is that it is possible to take worth from a wide variety of places, not just your classes. But what we aren’t told is that these kinds of choices limit you in the long term.

And the way we talk about Brown to freshmen and prospective students does them a disservice. It isn’t until sophomore spring that anyone takes back this fiction. It is generally around this time of your second year that you learn that your academic choices actually do matter for more reasons than you were originally told. For example, unless you’re pre-med, the first time anyone tells you why your grades matter is when you learn that, for many concentrations, you have to be an honors student to write a thesis. Freshman year, that was a delineation I wasn’t even sure existed, but as it turns out, it has the potential to severely limit what I am able to do while here. 

This can be compounded for those who went to somewhat lower-quality high schools or were denied opportunity in some other way. While it is nice to think that however we got here, we now sit on a level playing field, this is not the case. The open curriculum isn’t as open as we’d like to think.

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

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

  1. Willie Sam says:

    This is a confusing piece since it appears at first glace to be a critique of the open curriculum but is nothing of the sort. Rather, the writer seems to have a problem with the requirements of various concentrations that are too rigorous for some who need to take additional courses to catch up with their peers. While this might be true, it also reaffirms the value of the open curriculum in giving students as much an opportunity to take as many courses outside their concentration of their choosing.

    The open curriculum has made Brown a unique school for decades and has allowed the school to circumvent contentious and fruitless debates about various distribution requirements that have led to such rancor. My fear is that soon the school will discard such a successful policy if and when it institutes “social justice” requirements. At that point the school will be well on its way to becoming something quite different.

  2. Unfortunately, students who didn’t have the opportunity to take calculus and other AP classes would be at a disadvantage at any school, even more so at those with a core. The open curriculum is still as valuable as ever. This is a good thing to consider for peer advisors, though.

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at