The Pros and Cons of the Open Curriculum at Amherst College
Issue   |   Tue, 04/03/2018 - 21:16

Amherst College is known for its open curriculum, which allows students a large amount of freedom in which classes they choose to take.

However, particularly around advising time, the open curriculum can be stressful. It forces us to begin to choose not only our courses for next semester, but also the specific academic paths which will prepare us for our futures.

Although Amherst is famous for its humanities programs, often being called the “writing school” — and for good reason given its alumni — Amherst is also experiencing a dramatic increase in enrollment in math and natural sciences classes, according to Amherst’s 2018 report to the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education.

This trend is present at schools all over the world, not just Amherst, perhaps due to the perception that STEM degrees are safer bet given the ever-changing workforce. Such a perception has increased pressure among students to choose STEM majors — another added pressure facing students as they begin to choose our courses for next semester.

The open curriculum does allow for great exploration, but simultaneously does not let students hide their insecurity or uncertainty about the future behind core requirements or other set classes.

Although the open curriculum is the reason many students choose Amherst, this does not change the fact that, at some point, everyone needs to choose a major. The selection of our courses is a process of educational discovery and even self-discovery, as it can expose assumptions about both ourselves and the broader world.

Personally, I expect to double major in physics and mathematics. I do love my majors. However, I battle with whether I genuinely enjoy what I do or if I am pursuing these majors because I feel like I have something to prove.

In secondary school, my favorite quote from a physics classmate was, “I wonder why there are more girls at this help session. Your kind must just need more help.” It was perhaps a joke, but nevertheless his statement was indicative of often implicit attitudes in physics, at least in my experience of the subject. While I am ridiculously privileged in more ways than I am aware, I took these sentiments as a challenge that I could either accept and overcome or turn down and admit defeat. Rising to a challenge can be a valuable skill, but I realized that choosing a major based on someone’s assumption about you can be just as detrimental. That said, I do enjoy physics itself, for the program here as well as the specific problems.

Sabrina Lin ’21 explained how choosing a track directed at achieving some sort of later career goal can add stability to the course selection process. Lin is on the pre-med track and appreciates some of the structure the track provides when facing a daunting, though exciting, list of classes. A self-described indecisive individual, she said that the open curriculum can almost become crippling in its large allotment of freedom, and the pre-med track can somewhat ameliorate the pressure of these overwhelming choices. However, she acknowledges that having a career goal or “track” as a guide does not completely protect a student from uncertainty about classes, majors or career paths.

This pressure is partially the result of such open curriculum. Many students end up double majoring, but this could stem from insecurity about committing to just one major, particularly with the stigma against humanities majors in general culture. The freedom of the curriculum allows for the possibility of a double major, a comforting option when dealing with fears over committing to a particular major.

Ultimately, the freedom offered by our open curriculum should be embraced, but it is important to also recognize that this sort of freedom can expose fears many of us share about the future.