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Tobias '12: No, Brown should not have required classes

"The various courses should be so arranged that, in so far as it is practicable, every student might study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose." These words, stated in 1850 by Francis Wayland, Brown's fourth president, have been the foundation for academics at Brown for more than 150 years, and they are at the heart of the University's core mission. Brown's curriculum, which allows students to take whatever courses they choose without any required courses, is one of the main assets of the University that sets it apart from its peer institutions.

If the University began requiring students to take certain courses, it would tear at the fabric of the University's identity. Part of the beauty of Brown is that the students are free to explore their interests without the burden of requirements. Requirements eat into a student's schedule and black out spaces that could have been allotted for topics more aligned with their academic interests.

Furthermore, requirements might be wasted on many students, forced to sit through a class on a topic that they either have no interest in or are already highly familiar with. Say that Brown decided a class on English literature were important enough to be required. For many students who had a strong penchant for reading on their own or took Advanced Placement classes in high school, the class would be redundant. We only get to take four or five courses a semester, and wasting one on a topic that you already know seems like a colossal misuse of time, if not tuition.

One of the great things about having no required courses is that many students ultimately end up taking what would really count as distribution requirements at another school, but they do so freely. Choice is a very powerful psychological weapon. Tell a child to clean his room, and he will probably refuse or do so grudgingly, but let him decide what to do about the mess, and he might devise his own path. Yes, there is the possibility that he still might not clean it, just as there are undoubtedly many Brunonians who have graduated without ever studying literature. However, if he does ultimately clean his room, it will be on his terms and with much greater enthusiasm.

At the end of the day, Brown's decision not to have requirements is vindicated by the professional and academic success of many of its graduates. If nothing else, Brown alums have learned what truly interests them, and that may be the most important lesson of all.

Ethan Tobias '12 doesn't believe in required courses, but if there were requirements, he would recommend BIOL0200.What could be more global than the "Foundations of Living Systems?" He can reached at

ethan_tobias@brown.edu




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