The Ivy Coach Daily
June 15, 2023
Open Curriculum at Brown University
Originally Published on May 27, 2019:
Brown University is well known for its Open Curriculum. With no class requirements outside of a student’s chosen concentration and with strange offerings from “Race, Class, and Girlhood” to “Kitchen Chemistry” to “Methods for Extraction and Analyzing Secondary Metabolites of Medicinal Plants,” Brown’s open curriculum, is relatively unique among elite universities. It essentially allows students to be the architects of their own educations.
As Brown’s open curriculum nears its 55th anniversary, let’s examine its history and its continued role in shaping the education of Brown’s students of today.
Brown University Open Curriculum History
The Open Curriculum was first proposed in the late 1960’s. Unsurprisingly, the proposal was not met without controversy. The proposal traces to two students back then, Elliott Maxwell of the Class of 1968 and Ira Magaziner of the Class of 1969. These young men penned a report advocating for significant changes to Brown’s curriculum (and the institution’s very educational mission).
And, of course, everyone just loved Maxwell and Magaziner’s proposal, right? Wrong. Brown’s president at the time, Ray Heffner, said of the plan, “The University is not a participatory democracy and never will be.” Oh, President Heffner? History suggests otherwise. It seems Brown was a participatory democracy, after all! That very proposal President Heffner quickly dismissed would shape Brown’s curriculum for generations.
Changes to Brown’s Open Curriculum Through the Years
As Lydia Defusto reported a few years back for The Brown Daily Herald in a piece entitled “Open Curriculum at 50,” “While the ethos of the open curriculum has remained largely unchanged since its 1969 implementation, some curricular details have been revamped over the past 50 years…Multiple changes occurred in the 1980s, such as the addition of the writing requirement. In 1988, faculty increased the minimum number of courses required to graduate from 28 to 30 after noticing that most students completed the bare minimum number of requirements instead of ‘using the cushion to explore challenging classes,’ according to a 2009 Herald article.
Defusto went on, “Other curricular adjustments after 1969 include the creation of First Year Seminars and an increase in the number of concentration options. ‘Modes of Thought’ courses, a central part of Magaziner and Maxwell’s original proposal, were officially revoked in 2009, 40 years after the proposal’s adoption.”
How Does Brown’s Open Curriculum Work?
Brown’s Open Curriculum is intended to encourage academic exploration and freedom. Four fundamental tenets of the program include:
- No general graduation requirements outside of a student’s concentration.
- A grading system that does not calculate grade point averages and class rank.
- The flexibility to concentrate one’s studies in broad, interdisciplinary fields of study instead of majoring in a focused area
- The option of taking any class for either a grade or pass/fail — or “satisfactory” / “no credit” in Brown’s lingo.
The Enduring Role of Brown’s Open Curriculum
In our experience, Brown’s Open Curriculum remains a key reason why so many students in 2023 remain interested in applying to Brown all these years after the curricular proposal nearly 55 years ago.
Yet when students apply to Brown and are asked — as they typically are — about the Open Curriculum, they too often cite generalities about the curriculum or make the mistake of name-dropping classes.
While the wording of the “Why Open Curriculum” question can vary from year to year, its spirit remains a constant.
For applicants to the Brown Class of 2027, students were asked, “Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about any academic interests that excite you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue them while also embracing topics with which you are unfamiliar.”
In prior years, the question read, “What do you hope to experience at Brown through the open curriculum, and what do you hope to contribute to the Brown community?”
The fact that a critical supplemental essay on Brown’s current application focuses on the Open Curriculum — nearly 55 years after the curriculum’s inception — speaks to the enduring importance of this curriculum to the university. And we suspect it will remain critical to the Brown undergraduate experience for many years to come.
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