To Honor the Open Curriculum

While recognizing the importance of an interdisciplinary education, The Editorial Board believes the breadth requirements in the new Latin honors policy will cause more harm than good to Amherst’s academic environment.

Last Tuesday, the Committee on Educational Policy passed a proposal to amend the college’s policy on Latin honors. Under the previous system, Latin honors were awarded based on class rank, as well as the relevant department’s assessment of the student’s thesis. The new policy maintains the thesis assessment, but now evaluates summa and magna honors based on median letter grades and whether a student has passed at least one course in each of four academic disciplines: arts, humanities, sciences and mathematics, and social and behavioral sciences. Students currently enrolled in the college are grandfathered into the old system, though. They will be evaluated with the system under which they would receive the highest honors, but all matriculating classes henceforth will receive honors under the new policy.

Although the Editorial Board approves of the elimination of class rank as a Latin honors consideration, as it alleviates student stress surrounding rigid grade cutoffs, we believe that the new breadth requirement is fundamentally harmful to the academic culture at Amherst. The breadth requirement’s call to exploration reflects the tensions between the open curriculum and the values of the liberal arts: While many students develop well-roundedness by exploring the curriculum, others use the freedom to specialize in the department of their expertise. The new policy intends to encourage a more explorative approach to the open curriculum rather than a path of specialization. While The Editorial Board affirms the value of an interdisciplinary education, we believe that the policy’s top-down prescription to encourage greater variety damages student curiosity and class dynamics and is ultimately at odds with the college’s institutional academic values — namely, freedom and student-directed exploration.

On one hand, the breadth requirement will impact the actual classroom experience. While it may seem fruitful up front — students will stretch themselves to discover passions that they may not have otherwise and departments will better be able to source students of different academic backgrounds — this requirement overlooks the power of the open curriculum to cultivate genuine curiosity and passion through choice. When students are given freedom, classes are more often composed of those who are present because they want to be there, regardless of whether they have to. With the policy in place, courses will become increasingly filled with students enrolled for the wrong reasons — box-checkers obligated rather than moved to explore. It stands to reason that such a shift in composition will alter the classroom dynamic, reducing the depth of learning due to a shallow motive for inquiry.

Moreover, the grade change would likely help students explore the open curriculum anyway without the college’s top-down breadth requirements. By reducing the pressure of class rank, students are encouraged to dabble outside of familiar terrain. This was the line of thinking responsible for the implementation of the Pass/Fail policy in 2021. Another alternative to administrative prescriptions for breadth may be to increase the number of interdisciplinary courses within departments. Regardless, a natural change to the college’s academic culture rather than top-down prescriptions, no matter how well-intentioned, must be put into effect.

But beyond how the changes will impact, on a tangible level, the academic Amherst experience, what’s just as important is what they mean for Amherst’s institutional identity. With the open curriculum, design-your-own-majors, and limited major requirements, Amherst has always been, in the eyes of the Editorial Board, defined by academic freedom and student-directed exploration. A decision made by the faculty — not the students themselves — to institute a breadth requirement, even if it won’t immediately drastically alter our experience, signals that the college is one degree less committed to the ideals with which it has become synonymous.

The Editorial Board appreciates the administration’s new emphasis on exploration and transparency in its consideration of a broader academic portfolio. However, education through administrative policy is counterproductive to the college’s vision for its curiosity-driven culture and learning environment. A policy-enforced education soon becomes a chore rather than a pursuit; it is precarious territory for the college to claim that it knows what is best for students without allowing them the room to come to such a conclusion themselves.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 11; dissenting: 9; abstaining: 2).