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From Martha Mitchell’s Encyclopedia Brunoniana:


The Curriculum of the early college followed the example of New Jersey College, from which President James Manning had graduated several years earlier. Somewhat limited in range, it included Greek and Latin for the first two years, rhetoric, geography and logic in the second year, algebra and trigonometry, surveying and navigation, and moral philosophy in the third year, and, in the fourth year, some history and a review of the studies of the previous years. Public speaking was of utmost importance as students in college were often preparing themselves for the ministry or the law, and the Laws of 1783 saw to it that the students were not lacking in practice:

“During the two first years, such Latin Exercises shall be exhibited as shall be directed by their respective Teachers; and, throughout the two last years weekly disputations shall be held on such subjects as shall be previously assigned them, both in the forensic and syllogistick way, as shall be judged most conducive to their improvement –

“Two of the Students, in rotation, shall every Evening, after prayers, pronounce a piece upon the Stage; and all the members of the College shall meet every Wednesday afternoon in the Hall, at the ringing of the Bell at 2 O’Clock, to pronounce before the President & Tutors, pieces well committed to memory, that they may receive such corrections in their manner, as shall be judged necessary –

“On the last wednesday in every month, every Student in College shall pronounce publikly on the Stage, memoriter, such an Oration or piece as shall be previously approved by the President, on which occasion the two upper classes shall make use of their own compositions.”

By a vote of the Corporation in 1830 students could be admitted to the “partial course” without registering to study for a degree. By 1846 there were 72 special students enrolled, at which time an attempt was made to attract more students by introducing “The English and Scientific Course,” which could be taken for one or for two years. This course was designed “for the benefit of those who do not propose to enter either of the learned professions ... It is believed that such a Course will furnish to those who are preparing for Mercantile pursuits, or for the higher employments of Agriculture and Manufactures, the means of securing, at a moderate expense, an education specially adapted to their wants.” Between 1846 and 1849 22 students had entered the course.

On March 28, 1850 President Francis Wayland presented his famous Report to the Corporation of Brown University on Changes in the System of Collegiate Education. The report addressed the present situation of the University and its shrinking funds and the need to adapt instruction to the needs of the whole community. It recommended a change in the curriculum to educate the agriculturist, the manufacturer, the mechanic and the merchant. It proposed a way in which, by adopting “a system of equivalents, we may confer degrees upon a given amount of knowledge, though the kind of knowledge which makes up this amount may differ in different instances.” Pointing out that the objection to this plan would be its effect on the classics, Wayland continued, “If by placing Latin and Greek upon their own merits, they are unable to retain their present place in the education of civilized and Christianized man, then let them give place to something better.” The recommendation of the committee presenting the report, of which Wayland was chairman, was that “the system of instruction in Brown University be modified and extended in the manner indicated in the above Report, as soon as the sum of $125,000 can be added to its present funds.” The response to the report was encouraging, although some thought the proposed system too utilitarian, and the subscription reached $127,995.

The biggest change to result was the creation of new degrees and degree requirements. The three undergraduate degrees were the Bachelor of Arts, the Bachelor of Philosophy, and the Master of Arts. There were three programs of study leading to the Bachelor of Arts. The first required proficiency (defined as a mark of 25%) in two ancient languages for two years, mathematics for two years, English literature, and two other courses. The second required one ancient language for two years, two modern languages, mathematics for two years, English literature, and two other courses. The third required one ancient language for two years, mathematics for one year, one modern language, English literature, and four other courses. The “other courses” meant that there were now “electives.” The courses for the Bachelor of Philosophy degree were two modern languages, mathematics for two years, English literature, and three other courses. In addition to electives, substitutions were also possible, as natural philosophy for one year of mathematics, or two years of agriculture, science applied to the arts, or chemistry applied to the arts for both years of mathematics and one modern language. The A.B. or the Ph.B. degree could be earned in three years. The Master of Arts was now an undergraduate degree “for those students who desire to pursue a full course of liberal education,” and required the study of both ancient languages for two years, one modern language for one year., mathematics for two years, natural philosophy, English languages and rhetoric, chemistry, and physiology, history and political economy, intellectual and moral philosophy. Acceptable substitutions were a third year of an ancient language for one year of mathematics, or a third year of mathematics for a year of an ancient language, or one modern language for a year in place of a year of an ancient language or a year of mathematics. Final examinations on the whole study of some subjects in addition to term examinations were introduced, as well as an examination on two authors whose works candidates for the master’s degree were to study outside the classroom. In practice the final examinations were not thorough and the outside reading was not extensive. After 1855 the examinations were dropped. There were other complaints about the New System. Barnas Sears, who succeeded Wayland as president, noted in his annual report of 1856 that “the character & reputation of the University are injuriously affected by the low standard of scholarship required for the degrees of A.M. & A.B.... We are now literally receiving the refuse of other colleges. Students who cannot go through a complete course, entitling them the degree of A.B. in other colleges, look upon this college as a kind of convenient establishment where they can soon build up a broken-down reputation.” Graduates with the A.M. degree were also ashamed that they were not deserving of that degree. In 1857 the “old system” was to a certain extent resumed. The master’s degree was dropped, the A.B. was a once again a four-year degree, but the Ph.B. degree could still be earned in three years.

President Ezekiel Gilman Robinson, arriving in 1872, found the curriculum inadequate to meet the needs of the time and the community. His first annual report recommended “a SCIENTIFIC SCHOOL of high order, – a School which, in addition to its more immediate aims, shall not fail to provide also for sub-schools of Design, of Drawing, of Civil Engineering, of Architecture, of the Fine Arts, etc.” The school Robinson envisioned was not established at Brown, but the founding of the Rhode Island School of Design in 1877 provided some of the subjects, and there were new offerings in physiology, botany, and astronomy at Brown. The courses in modern languages were expanded. The minimum passing mark was raised from 25 to 50 per cent in 1875, and holders of scholarships were expected to achieve a grade of 75 per cent. The curriculum was also altered during Robinson’s administration to include more elective courses and to make them available earlier in a student’s course. With the advent of the Bachelor of Science degree in 1891, the course of instruction for the Bachelor of Arts degree was altered so that after a freshman year filled with required studies (Greek, Latin, French, and mathematics) chosen for the disciplinary value, the required courses for sophomore, junior, and senior years were limited to subjects (English, German, history, and philosophy) “the pursuit of which is deemed necessary for all students who are to be recommended for a collegiate degree. The rest of the courses were elective. Changes were made in the curriculum for students entering in 1902 or thereafter. The required courses were Latin or Greek, German or French, mathematics, rhetoric (elementary and argumentation), European history, English literature, philosophy, a course in physical or natural science, and a combined introductory course in political science, social science, and political economy.

During the First World War changes in course content were arranged by the various departments. The Biology 1,2 course included camp sanitation and hygiene. Geology focused on map drawing and topography. Sixty students enrolled in a course in wireless telegraphy,. and the University prepared to offer courses in surveying, bridge building, international law, and the administration of charity in war-time. As President Faunce wrote in his annual report in 1917, “It is obvious that one of the by-products of the Great War is to be a more urgent insistence that all study hereafter shall be focused directly on equipment for life.”

For students entering in 1919 or thereafter a concentration requirement for the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Philosophy was introduced. Before the end of the sophomore year students had to confer with the Committee on Educational- Advice and Direction and “arrange a coordinated and progressive program of courses, taking into consideration his scholarly ambitions or his prospective career. Concentrations could be changed in the junior year.

The next major curricular revision occurred in 1937. The “New Curriculum” was designed to distinguish the work of freshmen from that of other students. As an initiation to college work, a course was required in each of five fields of knowledge (physical science, biological science, social studies, literature or art, mathematics or philosophy). Freshmen had to elect one course in each of three of these fields, and by the end of freshman year, students were to have drawn up a program of studies for approval by a faculty advisor. The new program also provided that proficiency in one foreign language, either ancient or modern, and in English be demonstrated by courses or by examination, and that passing senior comprehensive examinations be required for graduation. “Vagabonding” was informally developed in 1939 to allow students to drop in and hear lectures of interest in courses in which they were not registered. Some “vagabonders” became regular auditors of courses. The departments of art and music attracted the most auditors.

President Wriston, arriving the same year as the new curriculum, soon began to have other ideas. In 1939 he recommended a four-course plan. Its major features were the elimination of one-fifth of the courses offered, the decrease of the number of courses a student would take in a semester from five to four, with the expectation that students who spent less time in ... the classroom and more time reading and studying would be better prepared for the comprehensive examinations. The plan met with resistance from the scientific departments, with charges that more courses were needed for’ the education of chemists and that the reduction of courses could jeopardize the accreditation of the engineering department. In the end Wriston’s program was accepted, as he had intended it would be.

On December 12, 1941 a Division of National Defense Training Courses was established with Professors Walter Hunter and Edwin Kretzmann in charge. These supplemental courses, introduced with the intention of providing students with training for war needs, included drafting, meteorology, cryptanalysis, map reading, radio, photography, and introduction to Russian, Japanese, and Portuguese.

The “New Curriculum” of 1947 had two main functions – to give every student a stock of basic knowledge and to teach the student to think in different ways. To provide the basic knowledge, a committee headed by Professor Curt Ducasse planned a number of distribution courses to be taken as follows: six semesters in the sciences (physical, biological, and mathematics), six in the humanities (literature, philosophy, art and music, and religion), and four in the social sciences (history, economics, and government-sociology). The concentration requirement provided intellectual depth in one area, which was tested by a comprehensive examination in the senior year. Proficiency in English composition could be demonstrated by passing the entrance test or by taking a course. Passing a proficiency test in a foreign language excused the student from further study. For those who did take a foreign language course, proficiency was determined by test performance, not just grades. For those who did receive a satisfactory grade, two additional distribution courses could be substituted. When the first comprehensive examinations were given in the spring of 1940, a considerable number of seniors received an “unsatisfactory” grade, which did not prevent them from receiving their degrees, and six failed the examinations and did not graduate.

The I. C. Curriculum

In 1953 a Carnegie Corporation grant of $250,000 was received to test a challenging approach to the first two years of college, officially named “The Identification and Criticism of Ideas.” The first suggestion of the idea came from Vice-president Bruce Bigelow ten years earlier during a 1943 study of the curriculum, but wartime was not the right time to explore a new experiment, nor was the postwar period with many students returning from military service. The principle of the I. C. program was to “make a challenging classic the foundation of a course of study ... to discover the ideas originating or developed in the book, particularly those which have proved of long-range significance and which reappear as vital concepts in later literature and experience.” Criticism of the ideas would require extensive reading to see how other minds, experience and research modify these ideas. The program was neither a “Great Books” course nor an honors course. Its emphasis was on the intensive study of a single great book or idea to stimulate independent thought. Fourteen courses were offered in the first experimental year, 1953-54. Students were initially taken from the upper half of the two lower classes. To stimulate student participation, the class sat around hexagonal tables. In 1958 “I.C.” became an integral part of the curriculum for all lower classmen. Describing the impact of the I.C. courses, Professor Juan Lopez-Morillas wrote, “Many of us who, after long years of conventional classroom practice, faced an IC group experienced what may be called a ‘Socratic shakedown’ -that is, a sudden awareness of the dramatic potential which lies at the base of every intellectual problem .... I, for one, learned that I would never again give a course based entirely or even primarily on lectures.... The better student is willing to learn but balks at being indoctrinated. He is occasionally right and the Professor wrong on matters involving critical judgment. Finally, the best class hour by far is one beset by doubts and perplexities, for they alone bring into play the student’s imagination and inventiveness.”

University Courses

In the spring of 1958, Professor George Morgan approached President Keeney with the idea for an unusual course to be called “Modes of Experience: Science, History, Philosophy and the Arts,” designed to examine these experiences and their relationships. Keeney was very interested and suggested that Morgan contact Professor Bruce Lindsay in hopes that Lindsay would take up again his idea for a course on “The Role of Science in Civilization.” Both courses transcended the boundaries of any single discipline and did not fit into the course offerings of any single department. A new course category had to be established; Morgan and Lindsay named it “University Courses in Interdisciplinary Studies.” With Keeney’s support, the two courses were accepted and offered on an experimental basis in 1958-59. Keeney obtained a Carnegie Corporation grant for them and also for a potential expansion of the new category. Two more courses were offered in 1959-60: “The American Accent” by Professor Barry Marks and “The Functions of Literature” by Professor Juan Lopez-Morillas. Others were introduced in subsequent years by faculty members interested in interdisciplinary studies. University Courses were open to juniors and seniors and, in some cases, to sophomores. Enrollment was limited in many of the courses in order to permit better class discussion. The courses proved important to more people than the faculty and students who were directly involved in them. Several years after their introduction, the University Courses had substantial influence on major components of the “New Curriculum.”

The “Permissive” Curriculum

A new curriculum went into effect in the fall of 1963. It was familiarly called “permissive.” As President Keeney described it, “It is intended to permit a student, who knows what he wishes to do, to start doing it right away; on the other hand, it is intended to permit a student to spread himself widely, if he wishes to do that or is not sure what he wants.” The former requirements of courses to be taken in the first two years were removed. The old distribution requirement of four semester courses in three basic disciplines was replaced by “a year of work” in seven of eight broad fields. Whereas a small group of distribution courses had satisfied the requirement, now nine out of ten courses offered by the University would be acceptable, as would passing a proficiency exam in lieu of taking the course. Under the new system a freshmen could begin right away to take courses in his concentration. Opportunities for students to pursue studies elsewhere than at Brown were encouraged by the minimum requirement of residence of two years and the advantage of being able to take as many as four courses in one’s concentration elsewhere. The comprehensive exam to review a senior’s proficiency was retained along with a minimum 1.75 average for graduation.

The “New Curriculum” of 1969

On May 8, 1969, after a “marathon” meeting, the faculty voted the first major change in the curriculum since the “Ducasse curriculum” of 1947. The move toward curricular reform began with a GISP (Group Independent Study Program) which decided in 1966 to study education at Brown. In 1967 a report prepared by GISP participants Ira Magaziner ’69 and Elliot E. Maxwell ’68 called for radical changes in curriculum. The innovations of the New Curriculum included:

Modes of Thought courses, which were intended to stimulate freshman education by replacing introductory survey courses with small,, informal classes organized around special themes and taught by individual members of the faculty, independent of their departments. As part of the plan the old distribution courses disappeared. The recommendation of the Special Committee that freshmen and sophomores be required to take five Modes of Thought courses was seen by the faculty as potentially damaging to advanced and graduate instruction, which would suffer if the resources of the faculty were strained to offer enough Modes of Thought courses to satisfy the increasing number of entering students. As a result, the Modes of Thought requirement was removed along with the distribution requirement.

Individual concentration programs, emphasizing, in addition to standard departmental concentration requirements the already available but underused opportunity to design one’s own concentration program. The new concentration programs would be subject to the approval of the newly-created Committee on Concentration and the quantity requirement of eight courses in one’s major was removed.

A revised marking system, which introduced a satisfactory/no credit option, while retaining the usual letter grade system was adopted. The Curriculum Committee had already accepted a pass-fail grading system in November 1968.

Group Independent Study Projects, in which students arranged to study for credit a topic of interest for which there was no regular course, were part of the new curriculum of 1969. A Group Independent Study Project is one proposed by a group of students who plan to pursue a subject together for credit. The students must find a faculty member to sponsor their GISP and obtain the approval of the Educational Policy Committee. The GISPs fill a need for courses desired by a few but not offered. They also provide an opportunity for the faculty to test a new type of course without a commitment to adding it to the curriculum. Some subjects, as studies in Swedish and Japanese, began as GISPs, and then became regularly offered courses.

In 1975 Thomas J. Watson, Jr. ’37 expressed his support of the new curriculum with a donation of one million dollars to be used in the next five years to advance new programs for undergraduates.

Special themes and Topics Seminar Program

“In the spring of 1976, the Educational Policy Committee was presented a Preliminary Report of its Subcommittee on the Curriculum of the First Two Years. In part, the Report recommended the development of a seminar program designed primarily for freshmen and sophomores, which would both retain the strengths and goals of the Modes of Thought courses and, also, broaden the program by providing for the addition of new seminar courses which, although perhaps not meeting strict guidelines established for MOT courses, would still provide opportunities for both students and faculty members in small classes to explore issues and works of particular interest. In 1976-1977, the new Special Themes and Topics Seminar Program was initiated. These courses are designed to permit a limited number of students, generally under 30, to explore a single question or theme that normally falls outside the purview of a regular department. Like MOT courses, they are especially designed for freshmen and sophomores. The difference between MOT courses and STT Seminars is that while MOT courses specifically attempt to examine questions that underlie inquiry in a particular area, STT courses need not.” – From the Catalogue of the University for the years 1985-87.

Foundations Courses

“Another report of the 1976 Subcommittee of the Educational Committee recommended that a new category of courses be established, to be known as Foundations courses. These Foundations courses provide an opportunity for exposure to fundamental conceptual questions presented in a vigorous and coherent manner. The courses explore the foundations of academic inquiry and attempt to reveal and challenge basic assumptions underlying such inquiry, with the expectation that students exposed to sustained inquiry into such topics will profitably apply their new awareness to subsequent endeavors. Although Foundations Courses are generally open to students in all classes, freshmen and sophomores may find them particularly attractive; enrollment may sometimes be limited.” – From the Catalogue of the University for the years 1985-87.

“Collaborative Culture”

Collaborative research at Brown got a boost in 1988 from a $750,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, which, when matched by $1.5 million from Brown, would be used to interest more students, especially minority students, in academic careers to meet the impending shortage of new college teachers, and to bring new ideas into Brown’s curriculum. In collaborative research teams of students and teachers work together to supplement lectures and reading lists and to create new courses. Deans Harriet Sheridan and Karen Romer had earlier designed a program of research opportunities for students called “Odyssey,” from which three of the four minority students who worked with professors on research projects, chose teaching careers. Another innovation in collaboration was a group called “Spectrum,” which grew from sociology professor Martin Martel’s class on racial-ethnic relations. In November 1984 this group of students and faculty began to meet with the administration to try to find solutions to the racial issues which finally brought about the protests in the spring of 1985, which were led by two of the four minority students in the Spectrum group. Another product of the Spectrum group was an interdisciplinary course entitled “The American Heritage: Racism and Democracy.”

With the passage of time the “New Curriculum” of 1969 has become known as the “Brown Curriculum.” In 1988 the faculty voted to change the number of courses required for graduation from 28 to thirty. When the number of courses was reduced in 1969, it was expected that students would continue to take 32 courses. The reduction in the requirement was intended to give them a risk-free opportunity to take more challenging courses, and possibly fail them, without penalty. In practice many students actually chose to take fewer courses. Dean Sheila Blumstein’s report, The Brown Curriculum Twenty Years Later, presented in February 1990, found the 1969 New Curriculum a success. At the present time the University offers 83 different concentrations. Most of the graduating students take two or more courses in each of the three major areas of natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Students choose letter grades rather than the satisfactory/no credit option for 75 per cent of their courses. About one-fifth of the graduates have double or triple concentrations.

The above entry appears in Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell, copyright 1993 by the Brown University Library. It is used here by permission of the author and the University and may not be copied or further distributed without permission.

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