Dean of the Faculty

V. Supporting the Open Curriculum

Students’ curiosities and capabilities within the classroom are evolving rapidly. The emerging generation learns impressively but, year by year, differently. They are caught between the competition to specialize to attain career goals and the knowledge of how quickly specializations can mutate and disappear. They are wary of the ivory tower, but interested in the dialogue with their teachers as specialized researchers and artists who have a broader vocation. They have grown up with social institutions in decline, including public education, but are not less willing than earlier generations to trust the College if we live up to our end of the bargain.

That bargain–or, better, moral compact–is struck within the matrix of the open curriculum, which is a complex dynamic of trust, communication, and experimentation on the part of both students and faculty. The open curriculum imposes one overriding requirement: that students take full responsibility for the courses they elect and that faculty take full responsibility for the courses they offer. The intensity and spirit of courses taught to passionate learners by passionate teachers promote active learning and deep interactions between faculty and students. More than three-quarters of Amherst students are graduated having had one or more tutorial courses (special topics or honors). The open curriculum allows faculty to adapt course offerings rapidly to developments in their fields and to students’ evolving interests. Educational self-determination and the quality of instruction that it fosters are central reasons that students choose Amherst. New students commonly report that, after strategizing for years to attain admission to a first-rate school, they are invigorated by the chance to take charge of their education, while being supported in their choices, rather than having to check off another set of requirements. From alumni we hear testimony about the enduring impact of learning to use such freedom, which includes learning from making bad choices as well as from taking great courses.

Ambitious students with active minds typically use the latitude afforded by the open curriculum to acquire the skills and breadth of comprehension that will fit them for leadership. Inevitably there are costs to this freedom, and not all students are equally well served, as we shall discuss below. The CAP is convinced that such problems are best addressed by providing more guidance and equitable opportunity within the flexible terms of the open curriculum rather than by imposing content requirements that would compromise our current—and thriving—culture of student self-direction guided by faculty advising.

One area of concern is students’ breadth in course election over the four years. From the SCAE working groups and other groups of faculty and students, the CAP has heard persuasive descriptions of widespread gaps among our students in foreign language competence, global comprehension, familiarity with the methods of science, and exposure to the arts. In all of these areas, departments are left to work around students’ deficiencies or, frustratingly, to know that students are narrowing their educations by avoiding their courses. To give every student the opportunity to commence a broad general education, Amherst must provide a sufficient distribution of courses in these areas, a need that can be addressed under the proposals for new FTEs in Section III.

A second area of concern, to be discussed below, is the adequacy of our response to the disparate levels of preparation that students receive in secondary schools, where the gaps between the best and the worst widens. Students of equal potential may arrive with multiple years of a natural science and of summers doing research or with a single year of course work and no meaningful laboratory work. Writers of equal talent may range from published authors to those who have never had a decent writing course. All students are well served by the chance to craft an individual program that will allow them to pace and balance their address to their strengths and deficiencies. But we serve them badly if we do not provide a sufficient bridge from areas of weak preparation to the threshold expectations of course offerings or if we allow students to avoid addressing their weaknesses. Here we must not proceed by formula, but at the level of the individual student with the individual advisor, who must be able to direct the student toward courses that will meet the students’ particular needs. This section addresses the need for additional courses in writing and in quantitative reasoning, as well as for more support for teachers in developing pedagogies to address changing needs of students. Advising comes first as the key to entering our curriculum.