As potential members of the class of 2022 ponder whether or not to accept Brown’s offer of admission, many of them will no doubt be swayed by the open curriculum. Whenever I hear conversations among my peers about why we chose Brown, the opportunity to forge our own academic path inevitably emerges as a top reason.
Yet as semesters pass, I find myself evaluating the open curriculum with a more balanced eye, and from conversations I’ve overheard among classmates, I know I’m not alone. The open curriculum is a key component of the Brown experience but evaluating it without rose-colored glasses would help us see what we really want from our education. Reflection would allow potential students to develop a better perspective on whether Brown is the place for them.
A quick review: According to a University webpage, the open curriculum, which was instated almost fifty years ago, is designed to allow students “maximum flexibility” in their education. While students must complete a concentration and demonstrate competency in written communication, they are otherwise free to choose how they spend their academic time. Unlike most colleges, Brown students are not required to take a foreign language, a science class with a laboratory component or any other general educational requirement.
There are many benefits to this freedom. Because students do not have to spend course hours attaining mandatory credits, it is easier to have multiple concentrations. The ease of double concentrating, as compared to schools where a second major must be completed on top of core requirements, means that students can add an additional concentration if they discover a new area of academic interest later in their time at Brown. It is also easier for students to combine seemingly disparate areas of study. I know people who concentrate in visual art while on a pre-med path, or who double concentrate in computer science and classics. While these paths would be possible at other universities, there’s no doubt that they would be harder to follow if general educational requirements got in the way.
But while some students rise to the challenge offered by the open curriculum, others use it as a safety net. Double concentrating in two humanities, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard my classmates joke about having not taken a math or science course since high school. The open curriculum makes it possible to explore courses in departments that you would not have had time for if burdened with general educational requirements, but at the same time, it makes it entirely possible to stay confined within your comfort zone.
There is something to be said for being able to dive deeply into one subject as an undergraduate. As a first-year, I was already taking courses in my concentrations while my friends at other schools spent their first few semesters solely fulfilling distribution requirements. The open curriculum makes it possible to focus intensely on one area of academia, taking more courses in one department than a student at a different school would have the opportunity to.
The problem with comfort zones isn’t that they limit your studies to an area you love — it’s that they keep you from discovering new interests. I have always enjoyed studying history and English, but I realized recently that I would have benefited from a stronger foundation in sociology and anthropology. Like many students, I was not exposed to these subjects in high school, and so I went several years without fully understanding how they would supplement my education. And I fully admit that I am one of those concentrators in the humanities who has used the open curriculum to avoid subjects that sound unappealing. Though I have explored many departments, I have only taken one STEM class. My education has helped me learn to think in a variety of ways, but I’m not sure I have “Experience(d) Scientific Inquiry,” one of Brown’s Liberal Learning Goals.
As an upperclassman, I’ve occasionally found myself wishing that when I first came to Brown, I was forced to take courses outside of my known academic interests. It’s hard enough adjusting to college in the first place, and amid the chaos of living in an entirely new environment, I expect it’s normal to focus on classes that instantly pique your interest. Yet I wonder if I would have discovered some latent interest if I had been required to explore other curricular areas early in my time at Brown. It’s a bit too late to completely upend my academic plans, though I have been trying to take courses in new departments.
I’m reminded of something a classmate, also a junior and also double concentrating in two non-STEM subjects, said recently: If she could redo her time at Brown, she would be majoring in two hard sciences, subjects to which she had only recently been introduced. As a first-year, she was too intimidated to enroll in courses she worried she would not do well in.
Perhaps, then, the problem here isn’t the open curriculum itself, but that it allows us to run from our fear of failure. The students who come here are generally used to succeeding, and even measures like taking any course S/NC or not having a GPA don’t reduce the emotional difficulty of dealing with a poor grade. That’s a problem that won’t go away without a major culture shift, and although the open curriculum may exacerbate it by letting students avoid potential failures, its existence is not the open curriculum’s fault.
As admitted students choose whether or not to attend Brown, the open curriculum will likely factor into their decision, one way or another. I encourage them to think about what it offers and what its limitations are. Do you want to explore academically? And if so, do you feel able to do that yourself, or would you benefit from outside assistance? The open curriculum is an excellent opportunity but it isn’t inherently better than a traditional curriculum, and acknowledging that can help determine if Brown offers the opportunities to grow that a student seeks.
Caroline Mulligan ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.