The Brown Curriculum

The Open Curriculum

In 1850, Brown's fourth president, Francis Wayland, argued that students should have greater freedom in pursuing a higher education, so that each would be able to "study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose." A century later, this vision became the basis for a new approach to general education at Brown: the open curriculum.

The idea for the open curriculum came from a report written by undergraduates Elliot Maxwell, Class of 1968, and Ira Magaziner, Class of 1969, as part of a GISP (Group Independent Study Project) that examined education at Brown. The May 9, 1969 issue of  The Brown Daily Herald measured “three years and a million student work hours of discussion and planning.” The new, open curriculum eliminated all distribution requirements, introduced a credit/no credit grading option and generally encouraged maximum flexibility in each student’s course of study. Rather than defining a broad set of distribution requirements, the open curriculum gives students the freedom to choose for themselves. This philosophy has defined Brown's place in the landscape of higher education for more than four decades.

There is much evidence to suggest that our liberal approach to education works.  The success of our graduates in professional degrees, graduate programs, and in a wide range of careers—and the satisfaction of undergraduates as measured on frequent comparative surveys—attest to the continuing vitality and coherence of the curriculum's underlying philosophy.   

Liberal Learning at Brown

What does it mean to be broadly educated? The first Western universities conceived of the liberal arts as seven distinct modes of thought, three based on language (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and four on number (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). While this structure has changed over the centuries, the basic concept has endured. A modern liberal arts education is still defined in terms of a core curriculum comprised of several areas of knowledge.

At Brown, rather than specifying these areas, we challenge you to develop your own core. Our open curriculum ensures you great freedom in directing the course of your education, but it also expects you to remain open to people, ideas, and experiences that may be entirely new. By cultivating such openness, you will learn to make the most of the freedom you have, and to chart the broadest possible intellectual journey.

Each student's journey through the Brown curriculum is unique, and each semester of study constitutes a chapter in their own curricular narratives. What will your story be?