Fixing the Anything-Goes Philosophy at Brown

Brown University is famous for having the loosest graduation requirements in the Ivy League. In fact, there are almost no graduation requirements at all, for although Brown undergrads do have to major in something in order to qualify for a degree, they are free to design their own majors. As for anything else in the way of mandatory courses, forget it. Don’t like math and science? You’ll never be asked to take a single class in either at Brown. Find learning a foreign language too difficult? No worry—you’ll never have to utter a single word en francais or en espanol during your four years on the university’s historic campus in Providence, R.I.. You can even bid au revoir and hasta la vista to freshman English while you’re there, although you do have to demonstrate some level of competence in writing in order to don your cap and gown at the end of it all Grades? You can elect to take all of your courses pass/fail if you like. And if you do choose to have your professor give you a letter grade, the range consists of A, B, and C; F is not an option. Thus, there’s almost no such thing as an introductory survey course designed for non-majors at Brown, whether in biology or history or anthropology or economics. Why should there be? Students at Brown don’t have study anything outside their chosen (and often self-designed) fields.
Even given today’s rampant grade inflation, especially at the Ivies and other elite schools, and today’s lax definition of distribution requirements that allow students to select courses from a smorgasbord of offerings (a little Chinese history here, a little Caribbean poetry there) that usually ensures that they never learn the basics of any academic field outside their major, Brown’s requirement-free curriculum is a standout. If it sounds like something left over from the 1960s, well, it is. In 1969 Brown’s administrators jettisoned the university’s traditional core curriculum, including distribution requirements, survey courses and required sequences that obliged students to learn the basics of an academic field before going on to advanced-level work, in order to focus on an free-form educational philosophy whose goals were variously described as to “put students at the center of their education” and to “teach students how to think rather than just teaching facts.” One of the architects of Brown’s “New Curriculum,” as it is still known almost 40 years later, had been Ira Magaziner, now best remembered as the designer of President Bill Clinton’s failed national health plan but then a student activist and antiwar protest leader at Brown. And so, to this day, while Brown says it encourages its undergraduates to “experience scientific inquiry,” for example, there is no mandate that they actually do so.

Nonetheless, Brown has continued to enjoy a reputation for academic excellence (U.S. News ranks it No. 16), but that is probably due to a plethora of resources at its well-endowed campus and to Brown’s extreme selectivity in admitting freshmen (only 13 percent of applicants get in, and most have stellar high school grades and SAT scores). Still, Brown also has a reputation as the underwater basket-weaving outpost of the Ivy League, the favored school for the bohemian offspring of the left-of-center elite. Jane Fonda’s daughter, Vanessa, and former Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy both attended Brown.

Lately, there has been some unrest among both faculty and students over Brown’s loosey-goosey academic requirements. In 2006 some Brown professors pushed to restore pluses and minuses to the letter-grading system, but the move for more nuanced grading was rejected as fostering a competitive atmosphere that would be out of line with the spirit of the New Curriculum. Earlier, in 2004, Benjamin Bright-Fishbein, a columnist for the student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, had begged for the return of a core curriculum that would ensure that humanities students learned a little science and vice versa. “Brown, at least from my perspective, has proved to be an incubator of idiots savant,” Bright-Fishbein wrote.

So, after studying the matter, a Brown task force earlier this month released a plan to overhaul the New Curriculum in the direction of more broad-based liberal education. Brown being Brown, the new plan wouldn’t actually require Brown undergrads to take more broad-based liberal arts courses (or for the Brown faculty to teach them), and in fact, as an article in Inside Higher Education pointed out, Brown’s requirement-free curriculum would remain pretty much intact in its present form. The plan would, however ask departments to “rethink” the idea of introductory courses (if not actually put those thoughts into practice) and also to add “capstone” experiences (senior theses and the like) for those in their last year. Academic advisors would also be pushed to offer students more guidance, something many Brown students have been demanding.

And Brown being Brown, the plan contains at least one bizarre bit of educational faddism worthy of Ira Magaziner at his most radical: the “e-portfolio.” Such portfolios, in use at Pennsylvania State University and elsewhere, are supposed to be vehicles for students to describe track their own academic progress on the Web, are typically long on computer graphics and navel-gazing and short on content and grammar. The e-portfolio guidelines at Penn State, for example ask students to supply answers to this question: “What are the top five pieces of evidence that you would use to help demonstrate, describe, represent who you are?” Then, in a virtuoso display of personal-pronoun mishmashing, the guidelines continue: “Any student can describe their Penn State experience using time as your organizational strategy.”

The moral of all this may be that it’s easy to put a New Curriculum into place but hard to get rid of it. Yet Brown has at least made a halting start toward recognizing that an anything-goes philosophy of undergraduate education is not a good idea.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

One thought on “Fixing the Anything-Goes Philosophy at Brown”

  1. I graduated from Brown with an Sc.B. in biology in 2002. I now have a PhD in molecular biology and have worked with smart people in the US and abroad, and I’ve thought a lot about how my education stacks up to everybody else’s.
    As far as I know, there are three requirements for graduating from Brown with a BA: know how to write (most successful applicants fulfill this requirement in high school already), complete all the courses in a major, and complete at least 30 credits (each course is one credit, for the most part). There are absolutely no distribution requirements. So in that respect this essay is correct.
    Does it work? All I can really do is speak from personal experience. This was a great system for me, but I ended up taking a broad spectrum of courses. It was a great system for my husband, because although he was a music major, he took enough math, physics, and engineering to qualify him for masters in engineering program at Penn State. Most of my friends at Brown took a pretty wide array of courses and loved the flexibility to choose what they wanted.
    The New Curriculum is not a program I would recommend for average students at Large State U. But with some of the best college students in the country, I think Brown can afford to give their disciplined student body more freedom. In addition, many of the incoming students at a place like Brown have already completed college-level coursework in high school — I arrived at Brown with college credit for calculus, biology, US history, English, and German. Since lots of people are already well-rounded by the time they start, maybe there’s no need to force students to continue to be well-rounded.
    So, I disagree with the Brown Daily Herald columnist who thinks Brown predominantly churns out idiots savant. You can certainly get through Brown taking only math, or only English, and some people do. But this approach would be frowned upon by the majority of the student body as too narrow and a waste of a great educational resource.
    In my opinion, what Joe Ivy Leaguer ends up learning in college depends a lot more on Joe Ivy Leaguer than on the distribution requirements of his university. This particular Jane Ivy Leaguer took advantage of everything Brown had to offer, and measures up just fine against anyone who completed distribution requirements anywhere else.

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