The Case for Open Curriculum

I have this vivid memory of taking a university summer course a few years ago, sitting around with other enraptured high school students and listening to the professor expound on college life. “Listen,” she told us, “you suffer through boring courses in high school so you can get to college and never take those classes again.” 

“Cool,” I remember thinking, “Great. That’s why I’m forcing myself through the unfortunate mess we call Advanced Placement.”

And of course, upon coming to Claremont, I was in the same situation as many of my classmates: Those AP classes I had agonized over for three years were reduced to pretty accessories, two credits  and a perfunctory “Good job” from my new alma mater. The source of my new frustrations? Breadth of Study.

Don’t get me wrong: I chose the 5C experience knowing full well that I would be required to take a distribution of courses my college deemed adequately varied. I recognize, too, Pomona College’s generosity in its requirements—the areas are broad and few enough that any student could complete all five by the end of first year with room to spare. The diversity of classes doesn’t faze me; the fact that it is mandated does.

The purpose of Breadth of Study is clear: Pomona, as well as nearly all of its peer institutions, wants graduates to receive adequate exposure to all facets of academia, from humanities to STEM fields. Drawing from multiple areas allows students to become more well-rounded thinkers; that is the value, again, of liberal arts education. I would posit, however, that Pomona’s area requirements are too broad for one of the school’s aims to be standardization of skills in the student body. A student taking PHIL 060: Logic will graduate with vastly different quantitative skills than one in MATH 031: Calculus II, even though both courses are listed under Area 5. Introduction to Literary Analysis provides a different experience if the course is in French as opposed to English, but both satisfy the Area 1 requirement.

The Breadth of Study requirements insinuate, if nothing else, a lack of faith in students to pick their own classes. Sagehens and their peers from the other colleges are by nature inquisitive, exploratory, and eager to diversify their interests. That’s why they apply and why they are admitted. Even without any academic imperative, they would seek out a broad range of classes, building skills in various backgrounds before honing in on a major. Interdisciplinary concentrations expose students to this desired breadth by definition. Those pursuing a degree in a single department tend to branch out beyond their major’s classes in order to add new flavors to their schedule. 

Perplexingly, the one requirement for which Pomona does allow a small degree of freedom is the foreign language requirement, which can be waived with adequate AP, International Baccalaureate (IB), or SAT credit. Why does my school trust that I am competent in German but not in a quantitative discipline? Does this flexibility imply that foreign languages are considered less important than Creative Expression or Mathematical Reasoning? Or is it a skill that the institution believes will last well into college, whereas others might be forgotten upon high school graduation?

Students here innately accept and embrace area requirements as a part of the educational experience, but I’m troubled by the idea that there is no way to avoid them. Other colleges and universities offer some leeway in the form of sufficient AP, IB, or SAT work to bypass academic requirements, something that Pomona rejects. This is where my frustrations arise: After having proven in high school that I became at least somewhat competent in a given discipline, for the exclusive purpose of not having to take on the subject once more in college, I’m irked by the notion of having to sit through coursework I’d otherwise give a wide berth. 

Pomona doesn’t need to eliminate Breadth of Study in its entirety, but it may be wise to offer students at least the smallest amount of breathing room, whether in the form of standardized tests, college coursework in high school, or a test administered by the college for each of the areas to prove basic knowledge. Alternatively, the requirements could be loosened entirely, and the school could specify nothing but encourage students to take a certain percentage of courses outside of one’s major and minor. Classes become tedious when students register not out of desire but because they have to. Allow students free rein to explore and trust that they will sample an adequate assortment of courses: They will not disappoint. Then and only then will incoming students accept easily their position as self-directed learners and thinkers with the knowledge that they are shaping their own futures, not by command but out of personal desire and motivation to uphold these liberal arts traditions.

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