The Quiet Death of the Open Curriculum

In response to the new Latin honors policy, Contributing Writer Sophie Durbin ’25 argues that the breadth requirement will undermine the strengths of the open curriculum.

The Quiet Death of the Open Curriculum
Though a limited change, the breadth requirement will erode away at one of the most quintessential elements of an Amherst education. Graphic courtesy of Nina Aagaard ’26.

Whenever someone asks me why I chose to attend Amherst, my first answer is usually the open curriculum. Few other colleges offer students complete freedom to choose their course of study, as Amherst does (apart from the classes required for a major). To me, the open curriculum represents Amherst’s commitment to students’ intellectual autonomy. Our lack of a core curriculum and distribution requirements ensures that students take classes they want to take, not classes they’re forced to take. When I enter the classroom, I know that all of my classmates want to be there.

This will all change beginning with the class of 2027. Last Tuesday, the faculty passed a proposal to amend the Latin honors program. Students and faculty alike have long expressed dissatisfaction that the honors program depends upon class rank. The proposal, written by a committee of professors and Association of Amherst Students senators, addresses this common complaint by shifting from a GPA-percentile requirement to one based on the median of all your final class grades (higher than an A- for summa, and equal to or higher than A- for magna). Students will know for certain whether they achieved their desired median grade instead of guessing whether they made the top 25 percent of their class.

But I’m concerned by the proposal’s second clause: the introduction of “breadth requirements” for students pursuing magna and summa cum laude. In addition to writing a thesis and meeting the GPA requirement, Latin honors students will need to take at least one class each in the “arts, humanities, sciences and mathematics, and social and behavioral sciences.”

The breadth requirement may seem like a minor detail that encourages students to explore the liberal arts — something we should do regardless. It may also boost Amherst’s humanities numbers at a time when humanities enrollment nationwide is shrinking, which I fully support as an English major. However, I argue that this amendment to Latin honors will fundamentally change the spirit of Amherst and, ultimately, mark the end the open curriculum.

Although it may sound as though the breadth requirement only applies to a select group of high-achievers, in reality, it will affect a huge portion of campus. Around 50 percent of Amherst students choose to write a thesis, which is the primary requisite for Latin honors. If the majority of the college must fulfill distribution requirements, no matter how mild they are, how can we claim to have an open curriculum? Even if some thesis-writers choose not to pursue magna or summa honors, I imagine that most would at least like to try. Writing a thesis is arguably the most arduous element of earning Latin honors, so meeting the breadth requirement may seem trivial in comparison. And thus a tweak to Latin honors requirements suddenly transforms Amherst’s entire curriculum.

Once the changes go into effect, Amherst’s classrooms will be filled with people who don’t want to be there. Professors who already worry about lack of participation in class discussions will face even more apathy from students who only want to check off a box. The breadth requirement doesn’t guarantee intellectual risk-taking because students can simply seek out easier courses in departments they dislike. It may even hurt the students who are risk-takers. As Assistant Professor of Computer Science Matteo Riondato noted during the faculty meeting wherein the proposal was passed, some students may have developed an expertise through self-study and choose not to take courses in this area. These students would be forced to spend a class slot on a subject they already know well when they could instead take new and challenging courses in another department.

The changes to Latin honors will undermine Amherst’s collaborative and learning-based environment. As students begin to consider breadth requirements while choosing courses, an uneasy divide will emerge between those who pursue honors and those who don’t.

Amherst has a remarkably uncompetitive culture among elite institutions  and few students openly discuss their academic aspirations. I’m a sophomore and I’ve never heard anyone announce their plans to graduate with honors. However, I fear that increasing the academic demands for Latin honors will encourage competition and credentialism. Students will need to decide whether they want to go for honors even earlier thanks to the breadth requirement. Those with demanding courses of study like pre-med might need to factor in the breadth requirement as first-years. And people who previously would have avoided talking about Latin honors might find themselves explaining their ambitions whenever course selection comes around.

Yet, graduating without honors won’t prevent anyone from finding a job or going to graduate school — it’s an academic achievement that provides recognition and little else.

I doubt any of these shifts will happen overnight. Instead, I’m worried about Amherst 10 years in the future, when no student remembers the college prior to the breadth requirements. Will students actually be more intellectually curious? Will first-years announce to their friends that they want to graduate summa cum laude? Will we still boast to prospective students that we have an open curriculum?