Op-eds, Opinions

Whitaker ’20: Loving the Open Curriculum

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Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, November 14, 2019

The merits of the Open Curriculum have become a point of discussion after Galen Hall ’20’s recent column questioned the success of Brown’s experiment. I am glad this is the case — traditions and policies need to be periodically reevaluated.

But despite Hall’s thoughtful comments on the subject, upon reevaluation the Open Curriculum looks better than ever. The Open Curriculum continues to provide students with flexibility in shaping their education, letting them acquire the analytical skillset that suits their needs. The Curriculum also plays a critical role in fostering a broad, and happier, intellectual community at Brown.

To his credit, Hall’s central point is likely correct: The Open Curriculum does not immerse students in as deep of a community as more structured curricula do at some other schools. When all students in a class go through a common curriculum, they almost certainly get to know each other and have more common points of reference. Hall points to Oxford University as an example, where students in a given program undertake much of the same coursework through their three years together. That would certainly constitute an almost entirely different college experience, with a much different feeling of community.

But what Hall does not fully acknowledge are the other types of community created by the Open Curriculum. After all, an Oxford student is largely confined to getting to know those in their program and college. At Brown, the Open Curriculum builds a broad community among the 7,000 undergraduates. For some students, that community even extends to the Rhode Island School of Design. By having so much flexibility in our schedules, we may not meet as many of our peers in our particular concentration or class as we might meet otherwise, but we almost certainly meet a more diverse and wide-ranging selection of students as we venture through Brown’s many different course offerings.

Moreover, Brown still provides plenty of other ways for students to form meaningful communities if they so desire. There are a myriad of student organizations on campus, ranging from the Ivy Film Festival to the Brown Political Review, with tight-knit cultures.

Furthermore, we must consider the costs of the sort of core curriculum that Hall advocates. As The Herald recently reported, Brown students seem to be particularly happy. Though we must, as the piece suggests, bear in mind the limitations of the polling, we might still conclude that Brown students are at least somewhat happier than students at similar schools. It seems likely that the virtues of the Open Curriculum contribute to that. When I think back to the things that made me most unhappy in high school, I often think to long periods of time spent in classes that did not interest me nor served my educational goals.

Indeed, schools with intense core curricula, like the University of Chicago and Columbia, are often thought of as some of the least happy campuses in the country. A friend of mine at Columbia, Amy Gong Liu wrote a column in the Columbia Spectator reflecting on what she sees as the fruitlessness of their Core curriculum. She writes, “Class became a two-hour-twice-per-week chore where we tried to give certainty to concepts we didn’t understand.” This is precisely the sort of situation that the Open Curriculum strives to avoid. It allows us to take classes we can value, cherish and feel excited about. Though the core curriculum had good intentions, Liu recognized, the actual experience of it more often devolved into skimming just enough of the reading to pass.

Forcing students to skim miserably through classes together might help build a deep sense of community, but at what cost to our mental health and our learning? Surely the creation of a core would be a Pyrrhic victory if it came at the detriment of students’ wellbeing and mental health.

Hall writes that a well-constructed core curriculum would provide students with a set of analytical tools with which they could approach problems. I certainly agree that college should provide students with an analytical toolkit, but I am unconvinced that every student needs the same toolkit. Some tools that are meaningful to me, like those that I acquired in economics courses, may not be helpful to many other students. Some might prefer the critical tools offered by MCM classes. Some might prefer the advanced statistical tools offered in a data science curriculum. In another recent column, Asher Lehrer-Small ’20 argues that Brown should mandate a computing requirement for all undergraduates. Computing is a tool that is useful to many, but not to everyone. When we begin to suggest these modest requirements, we quickly risk degrading the logic of student choice that underlies the Open Curriculum.

There is only one tool that Brown rightly recognizes as essential: Strong skills in writing. Communication is clearly fundamental. But, beyond that, I am glad that students are able to pick up the tools they see fit as they progress through their four years.

Let us not forget that the Open Curriculum can be especially important to certain groups of students, such as transfer students like me. It would have been impossible for me to have any substantive Brown experience had I needed to spend my too-short time here fulfilling requirements. Instead, I was able to sample all sorts of things Brown offers, from Theatre Arts and Performance courses to Slavic studies.

Most schools have a limited core and set of distribution requirements. A few schools have expansive cores. Brown is one of the few schools in the country with an open curriculum. We should embrace this unique feature, as many students come here for it and cherish it through their whole lives, as a recent letter to the editor suggested. More schools should be experimenting with their curricula, and Brown should be proud of its tradition of leading the way forward in liberal education.

Brown should celebrate its unique identity, one that provides students with something distinct from the “normal college experience.” It is unfortunate that some students do not end up enjoying the Open Curriculum as they may have expected when they applied. But to so many others, Brown is an oasis in the higher-education landscape. To me, this is a success.

Nick Whitaker ’20 can be reached at nicholas_gross-whitaker@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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