When I met with my first-year advisor earlier this semester, he made an offhand remark I'll never forget. We began our conversation with what is something of a tradition between us now: some healthy, agreeable complaining about the weather ("Where I come from this would be illegal." "But it never snows in India! ... that's how we'd know the law works.")
Getting to business, he asked me what my plan was for the second semester. This had been bothering me for a while: at the end of shopping period I found myself registered for a mix of five classes that seemed both insane and against the principles behind the New Curriculum. Unable to pick one to drop, I felt the apprehension of someone who has gorged on too much spicy food and fears what the morning may bring.
Having heard my concerns, he leaned back, shrugged almost imperceptibly and said, "Fail a little." We moved on to other topics and complained a little more about the cold, but I kept turning his words over in my head. He had pointed out what now seems to me a central feature of Brown's New Curriculum: the chance (even the obligation) to fail a little.
The essential consequence of an open curriculum is the transfer of responsibility from institution to individual. A celebrated theorem from economics says that efficient outcomes result when property rights lie with those who have the most information, the most at stake or both. The corollary is that institutions that promote negotiation and information symmetry increase efficiency.
The "property" in question here is a student's time: both scarce and valuable, all uses of it have associated opportunity costs. The student herself clearly has most at stake in the outcome; she also knows best what she excels at, but may lack the experience to pull disparate skills together into a coherent whole. This is precisely why the role of the advisor is so crucial in the New Curriculum.
Most of us as students, however, have never had those rights and the associated responsibilities granted to us. Through a combination of the resource scarcities and general boneheadedness that are the hallmarks of your typical high school, we find ourselves in the absurd situation of never having had control of our own time and lives.
One of our oldest evolved responses, risk-aversion, then kicks in. Although this is in general a great thing, it may not always be the best way to conduct one's academic career, especially given the fact that most of us don't know our limits, don't know our potential, and therefore don't know what kind of behavior is risky!
What my advisor was saying was this: It is far better to stretch yourself and expose yourself to a little risk, especially this early in your academic career, than to risk never finding out what you can and cannot do.
Many incoming freshmen (I refuse to call myself a "first-year") at Brown cite the Open Curriculum as one of the biggest factors in their decisions to come here. It certainly was for me. The prevailing opinion on campus seems to be that this is because it lets students broaden their education and take courses in areas they otherwise wouldn't have been able to. But by the line of reasoning outlined above, the Open Curriculum's real power is derived from the fact that it puts power in the hands of the student to do as she sees fit (subject to advisor expertise), whether that happens to be doing a combined neuroscience and comparative literature concentration with a few courses at RISD thrown in, taking four 1000-level math classes first semester of sophomore year or anything in between.
Professor Shriram Krishnamurthi, who studies programming languages, often likes to remark that "design should proceed not by accumulating features, but by removing the restrictions that made them seem necessary." Ira Magaziner '69 P'06 P'07 P'10 anticipated this design philosophy by several decades when he proposed the New Curriculum.
Powerful programming languages are so because clever people use them in insane ways that just wouldn't be possible in lesser languages. Powerful curricula are so because unique individuals (ab)use them in insane ways that administrators did not, could not, anticipate. Sometimes you shoot yourself in the foot when doing those insane things, but sometimes you do something great. You never know unless you allow yourself to fail a little.
Kshitij Lauria '13 is rethinking his personal economic decisions now that midterms are coming up.