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Jared Lafer '11: The one that got away

The open curriculum provides us with a framework for incomparable academic freedom. We can take basically whatever course we want, choose our grading system, add and drop courses on a whim and create courses and concentrations if the current availabilities don't meet our fancies.

But despite all this freedom, I've talked to a number of students who have left or will leave Brown regretting not being able to pursue all of their academic interests. "The one that got away," they say sullenly, dead on the inside.

This might seem a bit strange to the outsider. After all, one would think that Brown students would exploit the open curriculum and take all of the courses they want to take before Father Time whisks them away into the real world.

But the system is unfortunately stacked against us.

Students generally graduate having taken 32 courses. The average A.B. student probably uses 12 courses to fill concentration requirements; the average Sc.B. student probably uses 17 courses to fill concentration requirements. Most students probably fool around with about 15 courses, and by that I mean elect to explore areas outside their own concentration-to-be.

For a lot of students, however, these 15 courses are not enough to meaningfully pursue any academic interests they might develop before graduation.

This is explainable, as our educations tend to evolve in such a way as to limit our course flexibility when it really matters, even with the open curriculum.

During freshman year, and to a slightly lesser extent sophomore year, there's nothing really substantial to guide our course selections. We come to Brown with some interests, we use those interests to focus our course selections and, more often than not, we end up abandoning those interests, at least in part.

For example, I came to Brown wanting to concentrate in physics; I'm now a philosophy major. Likewise, I'm sure you or someone you know declared a different concentration than intended upon entering college.

Because we don't really have a firm focus in the beginning, we're kind of blindly shooting bullets at department buildings and hoping to hit something worthwhile. The average student takes courses in a bunch of areas that he thinks he will enjoy, and gradually narrows down his interests until he finds something in which he wants to concentrate. While this method is certainly effective, it severely cuts away at the number of elective courses we have to use in our later years.

This is tragic, for it is in our later years when we have perspective; our interests are in check, and we know what we want out of our education. So we often do not have the courses to spare when we want to pursue interests that have developed outside of our concentration (at least not to any significant degree).

This is even truer for double concentrators, who make up about 20 percent of the Brown class and are generally pressed to fill more than 20 course requirements. The same goes for double degree earners: while students in the Sc.B./A.B. or M.A./A.B. degree programs are provided an extra year to fulfill their degree requirements, they regularly push 25 course requirements.

The bottom line is that no matter what, some students are going to come out of college without having pursued all of their academic interests, at least to their satisfaction. I'm going to go out on a whiny limb here and say this isn't fair, and suggest something be done about it.

For that something, we turn to the University of Rochester. Rochester is very similar to Brown. Both schools have open curriculums (though at Rochester students are required to complete "clusters" of courses). Both schools have a major research focus, both schools are in the Northeast, both schools have students. So I think a comparison between the schools is valid.

The University of Rochester has a unique program called Take Five Scholars. This program is directed toward students who are interested in academic enrichment for the sake of enrichment. Students are permitted to stay in college (at Rochester or even abroad) for a fifth year, tuition-free, and take whatever courses they like, as long as they collectively serve to fulfill some sort of intellectual interest outside of their major.

Students must submit a proposal and a cohesive course program to a committee, which accepts students who demonstrate the potential to genuinely grow intellectually from taking a fifth year; likewise, the student must show that he or she was unable to undertake the relevant studies during his or her former undergraduate years. There is no minimum GPA requirement, so anyone with these qualities can apply.

Only 68 students were enrolled in this program at Rochester during the 2008-2009 year, and so only a small fraction of students are allowed to remain behind each year. But I'm sure those 68 students leave college feeling much more intellectually fulfilled, and I see no reason why Brown students shouldn't be given the same opportunity.

Jared Lafer '11 is a philosophy concentrator from Manhattan.  He can be reached at jared_lafer(at)brown.edu. 




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