Students Need Curricular Structure

Oliver Rosenbloom

Cross-posted from the Brown Daily Herald, this op-ed by Brown student Oliver Rosenbloom asserts that giving students the "academic freedom" to design their own curricula deprives students of the structure they need. They choose enjoyable rather than rewarding courses and miss out on the possibility of a well-rounded education.

The most sacred dogma at Brown is that the New Curriculum benefits all students.

I certainly appreciate the opportunity to design my own curriculum, but I've also come to realize that the New Curriculum has serious drawbacks that do not receive enough attention here at Brown.

The biggest strength of the New Curriculum is also its most fundamental flaw. Proponents of the New Curriculum point to the freedom it affords students to design their entire course of study. But this freedom can also be a curse for students who are not able to handle it in a responsible, intellectually enriching manner. As a junior, I feel that I have finally found the optimal way to navigate the New Curriculum, but when I look back at my first year, I realize that I misused this newfound academic freedom when I first arrived at Brown.

Many students, especially first-years, are simply not in the position to handle full academic freedom. Instead of designing a well- rounded curriculum that spans many academic disciplines, they flock to the subjects they enjoyed in high school. They avoid college coursework in areas that they disliked in high school, and they completely neglect new disciplines in favor of the subjects they already have demonstrated an expertise in.

As a first-year, I did not fully appreciate the value of an education spanning many disciplines. I did not understand that taking courses outside of the humanities would expose me to new methods of thought, even if the subject material itself did not excite me. Instead of seeking to become a well rounded student ­— the fundamental goal of a liberal arts education — I focused on the subject areas that I most enjoyed. I know that I am not alone in abusing the freedom offered by the New Curriculum.

This unbalanced curriculum design is understandable, especially for students who suffered through rigorous high school coursework that allowed no intellectual exploration. It is tempting to use this freedom as an excuse to take easy or comfortable classes instead of challenging ones. First-years who lack college experience and a deep appreciation for a broad-based education cannot always be expected to take a wide range of classes on their own initiative.

Many students, my first-year self included, would benefit from some curriculum requirements that forced them to sample new disciplines. In hindsight, I realize that there is a clear difference between the most enjoyable curriculum and the most rewarding curriculum. First-years can place too large an emphasis on creating an enjoyable curriculum because they only recently finished high school, where a lack of academic freedom can be intellectually stifling. Such students would have a better educational experience if they were forced to take at least some classes that they did not enjoy yet still carry enormous intellectual value.

Many first-years do in fact enter Brown with the proper mindset to handle the freedom of the New Curriculum. Furthermore, most students who abuse this complete freedom upon arrival learn to handle it in a more enriching way as they spend more semesters here. Yet I would still argue that some students leave Brown without a proper understanding of the most beneficial way to handle the New Curriculum. Instead of using it as an opportunity for a wide range of intellectual exploration, they use it as an excuse to avoid challenging and unfamiliar courses and subject areas.

Due to the New Curriculum's academic freedom, some students leave Brown without a true liberal arts education or a specific skill set for the workplace. They do not receive technical or vocational training nor do they become well-rounded scholars.

This critique of the New Curriculum requires a few qualifications. Students who do not receive a well-rounded education at Brown have only themselves to blame, because they chose their own curriculum. The basic argument against it is simply that not all college students are able to take advantage of this freedom.

Furthermore, there are flaws in any curriculum design. Regardless of the presence or absence of curricular requirements, some students at every school will graduate without taking full advantage of their college years.

My critique of the New Curriculum should not be construed as an argument for other curricular designs. After two and a half years as a Brown student, I am profoundly grateful for this curriculum because I am now capable of handling it in a responsible manner. I know that most Brown students either enter college with the proper mindset for the New Curriculum or quickly acquire it. I am merely acknowledging that there are serious drawbacks to this curriculum, especially for younger college students, and we ignore these flaws at our own risk.

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