School

How the “Chill Ivy” Decided to Give Its Students Absolute Freedom

The history of Brown’s Open Curriculum says a lot about modern politics.

College gates in front of a brick building.
Brown University. John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

If you attend Brown University, you can be “the architect of your own education”—so promises the school’s webpage. This ability to have “the freedom to study what you choose and the flexibility to discover what you love” is due to Brown’s Open Curriculum. The school’s lack of general education requirements, Brown promises, provides students benefits, like freedom, choice, and the opportunity for self-discovery.

First adopted in 1969, after a campaign by student activists, the Open Curriculum has been critical in burnishing Brown’s reputation as the “chill” or “laid-back” Ivy, and differentiating it from rivals like Columbia or the University of Chicago, both of which have a rigorous core curriculum and a slew of requirements. Other colleges and universities, like Amherst, Hampshire, and Wesleyan, followed Brown in developing their own versions.

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The Brown curricular model is so enticing—and such a part of the Brown brand—that even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in her recent Brown commencement address, voiced regret at not having been an undergraduate there because “I would have loved to participate in the Open Curriculum.”

While this endorsement probably confirms Pelosi’s many conservative critics’ suspicions about her radical inclinations, it might make some of Brown’s many left-leaning students and alumni ill at ease to have their beloved curriculum celebrated by the speaker, who is one of the leading symbols of the mainstream Democratic Party and all its limitations. And it might seem like a betrayal of the ideals of the 1960s student activists who fought for its implementation to see the Open Curriculum appropriated in the college’s effort to brand itself. But look again. The Open Curriculum has always been less Weather Underground, and more corporate Democrat.

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In recent decades, academics on the left have described the negative impact of what they call the “neoliberalization” of higher education. In the past few decades, these critics argue, colleges and universities have become competitive, profit-making institutions that have simultaneously increased tuition and administrative positions and sharply reduced numbers of tenure-track faculty. But seemingly hippie, student-centered measures like Brown’s Open Curriculum, through their emphasis on concepts like entrepreneurial freedom, individual responsibility, choice, risk-taking, and the student as consumer are also a part of this picture—another way that elite institutions have come to embrace and reproduce these neoliberal values. What and who is all this freedom, self-discovery, and empowerment in education for? Is the Open Curriculum actually liberating for every student, or just some? And is it fulfilling its original goals, of making Brown and the wider society more small-d democratic, or perhaps doing the opposite?

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Back in 1999, I was one of the thousands of prospective college students enticed by Brown’s Open Curriculum and its promises of freedom and self-discovery (along with the idea that I would never have to take another math or science class). I was fortunate to be accepted to Brown, and I loved my time there. I feel tremendous loyalty and admiration for it as an institution. Since graduating, I’ve gone on to become a historian who specializes in the evolution of modern liberalism and the Democratic Party, and recently published a book titled Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. In it, I argue that the Clinton-era Democratic Party’s embrace of market-oriented solutions to social problems exacerbated, rather than alleviated, economic and racial inequality.

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Since the book looks at the period in which I myself was in college, working on it led me to consider how Brown’s ideals align a bit too easily with the techno-optimism and market-oriented approaches that have been embraced by key Democratic politicians from the 1990s well into today. Individual choice, responsibility, and empowerment were also the main buzzwords of the Clinton administration, embedded into legislation like the controversial welfare reform law of 1996, which was officially known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Such words all too often become a way of shifting risk and failure onto the individual, while absolving those in power from assuming true accountability.

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While writing Left Behind, I found it increasingly less coincidental that the primary architect of the Open Curriculum, Ira Magaziner, would go on to be a member of the Clinton administration, and one of his closest friends and advisers. When Magaziner arrived at Brown in the mid-1960s, it looked very little like the campus now derided by Tucker Carlson and Fox News. Strongly opposed to the Vietnam War and supportive of the civil rights struggle, Magaziner quickly established himself as a campus activist, and became increasingly frustrated by the gaps between his ideals and his educational experience. He believed the curriculum had too many requirements, was too preprofessional, overly focused on lectures and rote regurgitation, and gave students little responsibility over their own education.

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To be clear, Magaziner was no radical. Rather, he was part of the faction of 1960s campus activists who were more interested in changing the system than blowing it up. Instead of taking over administration buildings (as Black students at Brown would do around the same time), Magaziner and his collaborator Elliot E. Maxwell gathered more than 30 other students to spend a year studying the Brown curriculum and higher education more broadly. Magaziner then spearheaded the drafting of a more than 400-page report that combined a bold and lengthy exploration of the larger purpose of education and universities in American society with critiques of the ways the existing Brown curriculum lacked intellectual coherence and specific ideas for how to alter it. Magaziner and his collaborators wanted to move the curriculum away from its focus on professionalism and skills. Instead, they emphasized fostering creativity, freedom, and learning for learning’s sake.

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Although not all of the proposed reforms were implemented, the report’s main messages of empowering students to take more responsibility and ownership over their education became a centerpiece of the reform and shaped the template for Brown’s curriculum going forward. Today, in addition to facing no general education requirements, Brown students have a two-week shopping period where they can decide what courses they want to take, with more than 2,000 classes to choose from. They can pick from more than 100 majors or design their own, and the school boasts a unique grading system with the opportunity to take any class pass/fail.

The approval of the Open Curriculum did not just transform Brown. It also turned Magaziner into a campus deity and led him to rise to the posts of president of student government and class valedictorian, and to receive a Rhodes scholarship, joining the same class as Bill Clinton. After returning from Oxford, he accepted a position as a management consultant at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group. Despite having no background in business, Magaziner quickly became a star at the company and eventually started his own firm, where he made a hefty fortune. Magaziner also emerged a leading advocate for harnessing the entrepreneurial energy of the tech industry to help lead the economy out of the doldrums of the 1970s. These ideas became increasingly popular with a new generation of Democrats, including Magaziner’s Rhodes scholar buddy Bill Clinton and his presidential running mate, Al Gore. Upon winning the presidency, Clinton asked Magaziner to join the administration.

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While Magaziner became most famous for his role in Clinton’s failed health care proposal, earning the dubious nickname “Hillary’s Rasputin,” he would have more lasting impact in the area of tech. In the late 1990s, Magaziner became one of the administration’s main proponents for harnessing the commercial power of the internet. He became especially passionate about the issue of internet commerce, actively discouraging taxing online sales and regulation, and touting the internet’s potential for promoting individual freedom and economic opportunity.  Magaziner’s euphoric celebration of the economic potential of the internet has a great deal in common with the ways in which he framed Brown’s curricular reform and shows his unwavering commitment to the ideas of freedom and individual empowerment.

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The Open Curriculum, however, like the internet itself, has proved easy for the larger economic and social forces of the past few decades to engulf and appropriate in ways that have undermined the potential for creativity and autonomy that originally made the model so innovative and important. I don’t mean to suggest that the values of freedom and student-centered learning that were at the heart of the original Open Curriculum model are not admirable. But they can slip very easily into the obsession with entrepreneurship as universal panacea that has come to dominate much of American culture in the past decades.

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Today, Brown’s promotional material is undoubtedly flashier than Magaziner’s 1968 report or the barebone webpages of my college years. The Brown website now includes a slick animated video to explain the key features of the Open Curriculum, replete with images of diverse groups of students working in robotics labs and sitting in circles on grass under large leafy trees. The accompanying webpage celebrates how “Brown’s flexible yet rigorous approach to education pushes undergraduates to be deeply creative thinkers, intellectual risk-takers and entrepreneurial problem-solvers,” noting that with “freedom comes immense responsibility.” Business, entrepreneurships, and organizations is one of the many concentrations (or majors) Brown students can now select—they can get a certificate in entrepreneurship at the newly constructed $25 million Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship.

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Even students who do not complete that program have been able to use their Brown degrees to secure jobs in these sectors. In fact, banking and finance was the most popular employment sector for members of the class of 2020 (the most recent one for which Brown’s CareerLab has complete data), at 18 percent of graduates, with tech and consulting close behind, together making up almost 50 percent of the class. If the Open Curriculum’s drafters wanted to move away from a preprofessional and pre-business focus, it seems not to have worked.

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Magaziner himself has not denied this entrepreneurial reframing of the purpose of the Open Curriculum but has openly embraced it. He has retrospectively suggested the Open Curriculum’s “philosophy of education was designed to produce leaders who would be entrepreneurs.” In the 400-page report Magaziner so famously drafted, the word entrepreneur never appears. But the ease with which Magaziner could make such a retroactive claim shows how well the Open Curriculum model fits with the economy, politics, and culture of the past 20 years.

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A key facet of Brown’s open curriculum is the “shopping period.” Brown officials suggest that “shopping” enables students to make an “informed” decision about their course, ensuring that classes are filled with students who are engaged and committed, and eliminating “backrow syndrome.” A seeming win-win. This feature has proved so popular that most of Brown’s fellow Ivies and other top institutions have adopted variations of it—even places with lots of requirements. In fact, when Yale announced that it was going to modify its shopping period, it produced a huge outcry among alumni who described how pivotal it was to their Yale experience and future careers.

As a student at Brown, I, too, loved the shopping period. I remember excitedly testing out a wide range of courses and comparing notes with my friends about the various sociology, political science, and religious studies courses I visited, many of which I never enrolled in. I relished the chance to have so much control over my course schedule. In our feverish discussions, my friends and I never really questioned the idea of “shopping” for classes. We never discussed how the shopping period was making the faculty essentially audition for students and, effectively, compete against one another. Nor did we ever think about how this consumerist mentality might reach beyond the walls of the college and lead students to approach other public goods and services as consumer items for purchase. It is not a reach to see parallels with the Clinton health care proposal or the Affordable Care Act, which encourages people to “shop” for their health care.

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Similarly, the messages of individual choice, responsibility, and risk-taking that members of the Brown administration (and those at Amherst, and elsewhere, too) suggest are so integral to the Open Curriculum assume a certain rationality, as well as preexisting self-knowledge and level of psychological stability, for incoming college students. They also assume a certain amount of privilege. In my time at Brown, I noticed that the Open Curriculum model rewarded students from elite backgrounds, many of whom had attended private secondary schools, and who had the confidence to take risks and the sense of a safety net to enable them do so. (Brown students, after all, have the highest median family income of those at any Ivy League school.) I have witnessed, myself, as a professor at Claremont McKenna College, how the divide—between students whose high school educations empower them to “shop” and experiment, and those from public schools with less practice shaping their own educations—has intensified, as policies like No Child Left Behind have required public schools to abide to a rigid, standards-oriented curriculum that does not prepare students, even great ones, for the freedom and independence of an open curriculum model.

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Although Brown students consistently rank as some of the happiest undergraduates in America, they often list advising as the area in which they are least satisfied. A recent editorial in the Brown Daily Herald complained that students are expected to navigate “the complexities of the Open Curriculum” with little more than “vague advice to ‘explore.’ ” There is little evidence that Brown’s advising is inferior to that of peer institutions, but anecdotally, many Brown students find the Open Curriculum daunting and want direction to avoid making mistakes and facing academic failure. These students, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, understand all too well that risk-taking and failure might come with bigger consequences.

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I don’t mean to suggest that Brown or its counterparts should fully abandon the Open Curriculum model, which clearly has many advantages and benefits. Nor do I mean to disparage that generation of campus activists who worked to implement it. There is something extremely admirable in students working hard for change—be it at their own institutions or beyond them. I often remind my own college students that they have more power than they think they do.

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Many schools—including Brown—are currently engaged in a debate about what should constitute a college education and how to ensure that students make topics like diversity and racial equity (which are noticeably absent from Magaziner and Maxwell’s 1968 report) more central components of their education. Schools should also consider how their emphasis on choice, empowerment, responsibility, and entrepreneurship can inhibit collective action, and how touting “freedom” obscures the real inequities and uneven playing field that exist among students. The irony is that the world that the entrepreneurial economy has created is one in which many college graduates, even Ivy League–educated ones, feel a profound lack of choice and agency. Being the architect of your own life isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

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