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Editorial: The Opened Curriculum

Count us among the staunchest supporters of Brown's Open Curriculum. We love that we can register for whatever we want, while our friends at other universities get stuck in required writing classes. We love that we don't have to worry about fulfilling complicated graduation requirements. We love the idea that, if we so choose, we can go through four years of college without ever taking a math or science course.

That said, we also appreciate the importance of taking classes in a variety of disciplines. At its core, Brown is a liberal arts university, and we are here to broaden our perspectives so that we may emerge out of the Van Winkle Gates as educated members of society. We are here to taste and to dabble, so that we may engage in meaningful conversation with other academics and so that we may apply concepts from other fields to our own work.

So it concerns us that a good chunk of students graduate without fully exploring Brown's departments. In the self-study report presented to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges as part of the University's re-accreditation process, Brown noted that over 6 percent of students don't take a single science course during their time at the University. That doesn't sound so bad. But an additional 11 percent of students abandon the sciences after only one course, meaning that nearly one-fifth of Brown students leave without decent exposure to the sciences.

The numbers are better for the social sciences and humanities. In 2007, only about 2 percent of Brown students graduated with one or fewer courses in the humanities, and only about 8 percent graduated with one or fewer courses in the social sciences.

The University's current efforts to encourage exploration are lacking, especially when it comes to the sciences. In the humanities and social sciences, Brown helps students navigate course offerings by highlighting "Liberal Learning" courses and "Diversity Perspectives" courses. But the University has no system for encouraging other students to try out biology, neuroscience, physics or chemistry. 

A student's right to choose is a hallmark of the Brown education, and we would never support course requirements or other mandates that would take away this autonomy. Still, we'd like to see the University be a little more aggressive in encouraging students to branch out. 

One way to do that is with incentives. The University could establish senior fellowships and prizes available only to applicants who meet certain course breadth requirements. The University could also organize professor dinners, panels and interdisciplinary lectures for the renaissance men and women who take classes across the University. These initiatives would give students reasons to take courses outside of their departments, while still allowing them to craft their own paths of study.

Brown students should be able to plan their own curriculum, and if that means taking zero science courses, so be it. But the University has an obligation to cultivate intelligent graduates who are literate in the sciences as well as in the humanities. There are plenty of ways Brown can do that without closing the door on the Open Curriculum.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials (at)



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