Curriculum Reform at Brown: Part I
( This is the first of a two-part series on recent changes in the undergraduate curriculum at Brown University. The second part will appear in Friday's CRIMSON.
LAST MARCH, eight Harvard and Radcliffe undergraduates published a full page manifesto in the CRIMSON announcing a Conspiracy Against Harvard Education. "That people at Harvard are deeply dissatisfied should be obvious to anybody who has any contact with students," they wrote. "Feelings of unhappiness, discontent, alienation, and unfulfillment are everywhere. We do not know what education is. We do know that what Harvard calls education is failing us."
Harvard education, they said, was making students unhappy, despite the fact that "when a person is happy . . . his capacity for learning is enormous."
The group wasn't sure what should be done, but as first step, they hoped to sponsor a "Festival of Light" during the first week of the classes after spring vacation. In fact, they hoped, everyone would skip classes, and spend the days talking to other people in the community, exploring ideas, and trying to find the happiness that would make learning possible again.
Instead, by Wednesday of that first week after spring break, students had decided to occupy University Hall. That afternoon, the University's highest officials concluded that Harvard could do nothing but loose the police on its own students. The next morning, they did.
In the bitter months that followed, students understandably forgot about their aim of finding out why Harvard's education was failing them, and what they could do about that failure. Another semester of lectures and sections and reading period and papers and exams and final grades is now almost gone, and it is only on Dean May's initiative that some students and instructors in the Houses are trying to come up with ideas for reforming Harvard's undergraduate curriculum.
Last April, while this campus was caught up in the conflict between students and the University's administration, students and administrator at another Ivy League college were working together to effect broad and significant educational reforms, so that Brown University now has, in many respects, what it proudly calls "the most flexible and progressive undergraduate curriculum to be found in any major American university today." Its faculty debated curriculum reform for three consecutive days. Before it adjourned, it decided to take a major first step toward abolishing all grades. It also abolished "distribution" requirements, reduced the number of semester courses required for the A. B. degree, and voted to encourage students to undertake as much independent study-both singly and in groups-as they could manage.
This is how it happened.
Brown is, by Ivy League standards, a relatively small university. It has an undergraduate college for men, and Pembroke for women, which together enrolled 3900 students last year, and a graduate school with another 1000 students. Even these figures reflect a deliberate policy of recruitment begun in 1955. Brown has no professional schools.
Thus, even in the past decades of university expansion and specialization, Brown preserved a tradition of commitment to undergraduate education. The president of the university was regarded as the leading member of the faculty as well as chief administrator and fund-raiser. Most of the initiative for improvements at Brown came from the president's office.
"Brown was know as a strong president' university," one student who was active in the educational reform effort says. "Simultancously, we lost a strong president and acquired Ira Magaziner."
MAGAZINER came to Brown from Lawrence, N.Y. as a freshman in September, 1965. (Harvard turned down his application.) He graduated last June, with a Rhodes scholarship for study at Oxford. Students and faculty alike still speak of him with something approaching awe. "Ira was the most brilliant student we've had around here for a long time," says F. Donald Eckelman, the dean of the college. "I think it'll be a dozen years before we see another like him."
Magaziner was a restless-perhaps a compulsive-activist. As a freshman, he led a campaign to undo the requirement that students buy all their meals in campus dining halls. He was elected president of his class, a post he was to win again each year he was at Brown. In short, as one senior recalls, "Ira was amazing. He never did anything that didn't work out. And when he was done, the class had an enormous surplus."
Morcover, when he was done last spring, the University had committed itself to recruiting more black students, and to phasing out Brown's ROTC units: Magaziner played a key role in the negotiations between Brown's administrator and its blacks, and helped lead a student anti-ROTC sit-in at a meeting of the executive committee of the Brown Corporation. He also led several hundred members of last year's graduating class in turning their backs on Henry A. Kissinger '50, President Nixon's Assistant for National. Security Affairs. Kissinger was receiving an honorary degree; the gesture, Magaziner said, was to show the administration that students wanted an end to the war in Vietnam not because it was expensive or inconvenient or unnecessary, but "because it's wrong." In his commencement address, he called for a "cultural revolution" in society's values.
But Magaziner will be remembered at Brown primarily because he, and a small group of other students, decided that they weren't satisfied with the education they were receiving, and did something about it.
BROWN'S undergraduate curriculum had last been revised during the 1944-45 school year, when the faculty decided to require students to take 12 semesters of courses for distribution (four each in humanities, sciences, and social sciences) and to show a "reasonable degree of mastery of some special field of intellectual interest." But unlike Harvard in 1949, Brown did not create any new "general education" courses to view specialized knowledge in a perspective broader than that of any one department.
Students at Brown filled out their programs with elective courses from established fields. There was a flurry of innovation in the '50's with the creation of "Identification and Criticism of Ideas" (IC) Courses and then of University Courses in 1958. The latter were upper-level integrative efforts, and four of them (like "Technology and the Moral Order" and "Conceptions of Man") still survive as part of the school's new curriculum. But the IC Courses-small-group interdisciplinary courses-were not part of the required curriculum, and with ered away.
By 1961, a meeting of the faculty's curriculum committee reported, "It is believed that our present curriculum is now nearing its terminal state . . . that revision of the rules is needed." But no one took the initiative to make those revisions.
"By the '60's," says senior Susan Friedman, who has now replaced Magaziner as Brown's most active reformer, "Brown had stagnated. The student body was passive." Nothing had replaced the defunct IC Courses. Many departments had established restrictive patterns, even specified sequences, of courses for concentrators. Ordinary concentrators usually needed eight courses, honors candidates ten. The distribution requirement was more onerous than ever (two semesters in each of seven general areas, plus another year of intermediate work in an area other than that of the student's concentration). Distribution requirements were still satisfied by taking large, introductory survey courses. All courses were for grades: there was no pass-fail option.
Nevertheless, some interesting ideas remained buried in the curriculum. One was the University Course. Another was inter-departmental concentration. Some of these fields (Applied Mathematics, and Molecular Biology) were not novel, at least by Harvard standards. But others were truly interdisciplinary, like Ancient Civilization or International Relations, and offered the possibility of release from the established concerns of traditional departments. A third idea was independent study, which was authorized for all students, including freshmen. Students who had "demonstrated ability to profit" from independent work could take two courses each term in this manner.
The independent study program provided the vehicle for reform at Brown.
By the end of his first year at Brown, Magaziner was disgusted by what he called freshman boredom, by the "narrow professionalism" of regular concentration requirements, by grade-grubbing, by the lack of contact with faculty members in large lecture courses, and by what he felt to be an incoherent undergraduate program.
"Undergraduate education," accord-ing to Robert Friedel, a junior who worked closely with Magaziner last year. "had become something that was 'done to' the student" according to a set of imposed rules, and not an experience "directed to the student's individual needs."
BUT that conclusion was reached only after long deliberation. In the fall of 1966, Magaziner was not sure why he and other students were dissatisfied. He proposed a research project to find out. Taking advantage of the independent study option. Magaziner helped form a group of Brown and Pembroke students, "whose only impetus was a vague dissatisfaction with their education . . . to discuss the role and purpose of a liberal arts college." Magaziner and his colleagues became Brown's first Group Independent Study Project (G.I.S.P.).
During the 1966-67 academic year, the group studied the history and development of American higher education, as well as (by their own count) more than 80 separate statements, by educators and philosophers, on what a liberal education should be. They couldn't find one they liked. They decided to write their own instead.
The group did not finish its work that spring, but the effort did not stop at the end of the term. Dean Eckelmann found $800 to support Magaziner during the summer of 1967 as he worked at rewriting and duplicating parts of what he modestly called "A Draft of a Working Paper for Education at Brown University."
That fall, Brown's new president. Ray L. Heffper, detailed a special subcommittee of the faculty's Curriculum Committee to begin considering reform of the undergraduate program while Magaziner and his co-workers gave final from to their year-long efforts.
Magaziner concluded that the focus of undergraduate education should be on the individual, helping him, as he later wrote, "to cope . . . with crucial human and social problems. "The University, therefore, should encourage both the search for "self-realization." and the "developing of intellect" It should remove, or at least minimize, "pressures which would defeat the seeking of self-knowledge": and it should oppose "narrow professional orientation."
"We worked on breaking down every requirement," Friedel recalled recently. "because requirements per se say that something is good for everybody. We assumed that each student is best qualified to decide what his education is going to be. When you tell people what is good for them, they learn how to beat the system, and they know how to beat it because they have been doing it for four years in high school."
Letter grading, the Report concluded, is a major part of that system, and the students recommended that it be ended.
"Grades are not only inconsistent with the aims of education, but are actually harmful to the individual." Magaziner wrote last spring. "They encourage a mechanical kind of learning . . . act as artificial goals and become ends in themselves, discouraging student's from developing their own values." Furthermore, he found, "they are not even accurate, except in predicting grade-getting ability." He concluded that grades served only to sort students for future careers as professional or graduate students.
To end the aimlessness and alienation of the freshman year, the Report recommended the creation of numerous new "Modes of Thought" (MOT) courses. Like many general education offerings at Harvard, these courses would attempt to help students understand a particular field. Unlike many general education courses, they would not attempt to survey much factual material. but would be problem oriented.
Like freshman seminars at Harvard, MOT courses would be conducted in small groups only, and encourage the close collaboration of students and faculty members. Unlike freshman seminars, they would de-emphasize specialized content and encourage students to explore the concepts that relate one field of study to another.
Finally, the Report urged more interdisciplinary courses in general, more leeway in concentration requirements, the end of distribution requirements (except for MOT courses), and a greater opportunity for students to work out their own academic program through individual independent study. G.I.S.P. s. and participation as teaching assistants in MOT courses in their field.
Magaziner's group released the 450 page manuscript of its final report in February, 1968. David Riesman, Harvard's Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences, would later call it "a Herculean effort, an impressive document." But few members of the faculty took notice. The special faculty sub-committee appointed by President Heffner met twice a week during much of the spring, but made no recommendations. In April, the Brown Daily Herald reported that the "vast majority of the faculty was unaware" of the report.
( In Friday's CRIMSON: how undergraduate education at Brown was eventually reformed, and what Brown's experience suggests about curriculum changes at Harvard. )