Is It Time To Abolish The Open Curriculum?

On July 31, The Brown Daily Herald, Brown University’s student newspaper, published an editorial urging their college administration to update their open curriculum to establish a “diversity and inclusion action plan course requirement.” In the piece, The Herald’s editorial board argues that the educational necessity of racial justice should be reflected in the college’s academic commitments, despite seeming at odds with the “spirit of the open curriculum” — one similar to that of Amherst.

The editorial picks up on a unique tension between academic freedom and promoting the study of universally valuable topics. This friction is one that Amherst, given our own open curriculum and recent pledges to anti-racist work, must confront. 

As displayed by Amherst’s anti-racism plan, education is a key element of any attempt at anti-racist reform. The blueprint emailed by President Biddy Martin in early August includes a section for “Pedagogical and Curricular Development,” a “Senior Fellows Program” and “Training and Education.” In these segments, the college puts an emphasis on more actively threading race conversations into our academic fabric: more speakers on anti-racist scholarship, more classes oriented around race and more training workshops for faculty and staff. 

But in these outlined efforts to promote education about racism and identity, Amherst avoids any binding measures to make sure that these efforts actually address the challenges they are meant to solve. The college’s new educational initiatives, though highly encouraged, are ultimately optional for students. The courses’ “opt-in” nature raises the question of whether they will reach the parts of the student body who would benefit most from that educational exposure. 

The subject of The Daily Herald’s editorial thus seems like an apt conversation to adopt to the Amherst community as we’re confronted with the same question for ourselves. Is the open curriculum an outdated notion in a time when education on race feels like it should be mandatory? 

Amherst’s open curriculum is deeply embedded within its institutional fibers. It is not only central to the college’s brochures and marketing tactics, but it is also a large reason that Amherst students choose to attend this school. The academic culture is proudly one of freedom. To impose requirements on students’ curricular choices thus seems to go against one of the most fundamental aspects of this community.    

The Editorial Board takes this objection seriously. As such, we do not propose the abolition of the open curriculum. Rather, we hold that there are certain steps that can make race and identity education more mandatory within the pre-existing structures of the college. 

One such step is to incorporate an identity-related course requirement into every academic department. In doing so, we also propose that departments offer at least one race and identity-related course every year. 

This policy would more officially promote racial and social justice education, while also preserving the academic freedom of the open curriculum. Students would not be required to take one specific class, but rather take a certain type of class within their chosen field of study.

This would also allow individual departments to customize those courses to align with the learning goals of their majors. The computer science department, for example, might launch a course on how algorithms mimic human-level inequalities, which would help students understand how social issues embed themselves in otherwise unsuspecting disciplines and,  potentially doing so in a way most resonant for students. The ultimate outcome of this policy would be preserving academic freedom, while also providing valuable education on the significant ways identity plays into life on and off campus, especially to students who wouldn’t otherwise feel the need to participate in those difficult conversations. 

Not only would this benefit each student by providing them with a useful understanding of the society around them, but it would also incentivize academic departments to hire and retain a larger pool of faculty with expertise in issues of race, class, gender and other identities so that these classes could be effectively executed. Such hiring would diversify the tenured faculty who make up and therefore hold decision-making power in different departments on campus, alleviating our current tendency to put all of the pressure on departments like Black studies and sexuality, women’s and gender studies to solve the problem whenever a controversy around a marginalized group arises on campus.

But of course, the inevitable bureaucracy of policy change may mean that we do not see this enacted anytime soon. Still, in the interim, there are steps the Amherst community can take to make race and identity education more obligatory. 

Amherst’s academic policy makers are not the only ones responsible for molding Amherst’s intellectual culture. The academic landscape of the college officially begins with course registration and is therefore heavily shaped by academic advisors. Advisors should reevaluate their roles in creating the Amherst atmosphere and encourage their advisees to enroll in courses that cover topics like systemic racism, the marginalization of certain identities and the like. If academic law cannot change in time to tackle this problem, then it is the influencers of academic culture that must. 

These changes would help address the major flaw of the college’s anti-racism plan: its failure to mandate racial justice education within the student body — a flaw that leaves the weight of educating those students on their classmates from marginalized backgrounds, many of whom already feel out of place on campus. This failure, unaddressed, will likely lead to the continuation of the annual racist incident we have had in recent years as, for the most part, students are the perpetrators of these incidents. Thus, the solution must be one that targets and educates those perpetrators, as well as providing training for all levels of leadership within the community.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 11; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 2)