Rethinking the Open Curriculum

Managing Podcast Editor Sam Spratford ’24 points out the flaws of the open curriculum and argues for more distribution requirements.

A 2019 white paper published by a consortium of open-curriculum institutions — including Amherst — asserts that “the open curriculum is based on a belief in the power of student choice exercised in collaboration with faculty.” This principle seems powerful and effective, promising to free students from the confines of general education requirements and allowing them to explore their passions in creative ways with the attentive guidance of faculty advisors. Given many students’ diverse course loads and close faculty relationships, reality has mirrored this ideal, to a certain extent.

Amherst’s open curriculum enamored many of us during the college application process, often being one of the decisive qualities that sets Amherst apart from its peer institutions. Even as a prospective chemistry major (at the time), my head was spinning with ideas for an interdisciplinary, freshman-year schedule as I perused course catalogs from recent semesters.

Not every Amherst student shares this excitement about interdisciplinary education, though. I have friends who are double-majoring in STEM departments, for instance, who cram three lab science courses into each semester and then, reluctantly, a random fourth course — usually something that doesn’t require much effort (understandably). In a vacuum, there’s no problem with this mindset, and under normal circumstances, none of us should be in the business of telling someone how to design their education.

But we are not living in normal times: at this moment, American society is reckoning with its history, its violent group relations, and its democracy’s vulnerabilities. The college must rethink its academic philosophy to ensure that every student graduates with the ability to communicate and act for the betterment of their communities.

A core curriculum would not be a productive change: it would force students to take classes they are entirely disinterested in, eliminating the classroom enthusiasm that makes our courses engaging. Moreover, it would make our educational backgrounds much more homogenous, thereby depleting the classroom’s collective knowledge base.

Instead, we should implement distribution requirements similar to those of Williams College. Distribution requirements (DR) typically require students to take a certain number of courses from each of the overarching academic disciplines: in Williams’ case, these are “Languages and the Arts,” “Social Studies,” and “Science and Mathematics.” Additional requirements highlight ways of thinking relevant to contemporary issues, like “Difference, Power and Equity” or “Quantitative Reasoning.”

DRs would ignite a variety of constructive changes. For students who have flexibility in their schedules but choose to take homogenous course loads, distribution requirements would compel them to diversify their education.

Many students are in a different boat — their major qualifications (for instance, the biochemistry and biophysics major’s 13-plus requirements) restrict their freedom, especially as they rush to complete their foundational courses. To accommodate DRs, academic departments would have to integrate more interdisciplinary content into their normal courses. A far more pervasive problem, however, is that nearly half of Amherst students are double majors, which severely limits their educational diversity. The most common combination is computer science and mathematics, which leaves students with only three free courses each year. In this case, DRs would force students to abandon double majors that are demanding and fairly redundant.

I want to clarify that I’m not at all interested in labeling humanities departments as more important than STEM departments. Rather, I’m advocating for interdepartmental equity, for STEM departments to treat the humanities’ unique insights with the care they deserve and vice versa. While neither party is perfect, I’m emphasizing the ways in which STEM departments are lacking because I believe there is a great, unexplored potential for STEM students to participate in dialogue with humanities students.

On-campus, the humanities are already rigorously engaged with scientific perspectives, and DRs would only improve upon this engagement. As anecdotal evidence, a required course for the religion major is RELI-210, “What Is Religion?” As I’ve learned from my friends who are religion majors, including Dylan Byrne ’24, students must read cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer’s explanation of religion in the terms of evolutionary biology. In my own experience in philosophy, Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought (LJST), and political science courses, I’ve had no choice but to familiarize myself with psychological concepts, basic statistical analysis, and economic models.

At a more structural level, humanities students must pay attention to the sciences, while the inverse is not necessarily true. Since the turn to an empirically founded social “science” in the late 19th century, most “Western” academics have approached their questions with a skeptical attitude, relying heavily on quantitative evidence for authority. Furthermore, as scholars of the social sciences examine society, they inevitably run into the world of scientists — their institutions, their ways of thinking, and their worldviews. It’s a shame that the scientific community itself is not a more integral part of this dialogue.

More than any other event in recent history, the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the interwoven fates of science and society and exposed the communicative failures between the two worlds, especially regarding the vaccine debate.

In his book, “State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America,” historian James Colgrove reveals that this fraught relationship has deep roots. America’s first anti-vaccination organization was founded in 1879 in response to states mandating smallpox vaccination. The proliferation of anti-vaccine outcries throughout the Covid-19 pandemic signifies that this conflict has not been subdued: if anything, it has grown in intensity due to the heavy-handed politicization of the debate.

Perhaps the most critical takeaway from Colgrove’s book is that vaccines are the product of society as much as they are the product of science. Population density, economic demands, and structural inequities make some more vulnerable to disease than others — without these prerequisite social conditions, vaccination would be much less necessary. As a function of the very same developments that created these conditions, America’s scientific research complex was able to invent the vaccine, prove its efficacy, and convince governments to implement mandates. Vaccination exists because of certain social conditions; we are urged to get vaccinated to protect the collective as much as — or more than — to protect ourselves.

For these reasons, the vaccine is a powerful symbol of the reality that science is entangled with society. Science’s knowledge is embedded in our laws, its research is nourished by our collective capital, and its truths are vulnerable to political distortions as much as any other.

On their own, scientific achievements can greatly help our society; in the wrong hands, they also have the potential to do great harm. With the growing popularity of the “Being Human in STEM” movement on campus, certain STEM departments implemented internal distribution requirements. The chemistry major, for example, now requires “a course focusing on structural and systemic issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

But this is still only one course out of 32 that requires majors to confront the reality that science is not a haven of objectivity, removed from the messy world of social studies. Sociologists have come to realize over the years that “Western” science is a social institution like any other — it can act as a tool of governance, be mired in profiteering interests, and, in extreme instances, be exploited to oppress entire classes of citizens, as “scientifically advanced” colonial powers did for centuries. Above all, science is forced to communicate with society at every turn — it cannot serve its purpose otherwise.

The truth is that, even if you aren’t going into an explicitly public-facing career in STEM, you will be a part of society. It is imperative that we be aware of that fact, lest we allow ourselves to live and work ignorant of our place in the broader community. The troubling social conditions we see today were created by people who only knew one way of thinking about the world, and who were never taught the value of a critical, interdisciplinary perspective, supported by active listening to those different from yourself. To safeguard against history repeating itself, Amherst must establish academic distribution requirements.