What I Learned from the Open Curriculum

I am not the kind of senior who has gotten particularly nostalgic about Amherst. This is not to say I’m ungrateful for the great professors, resources, or opportunities this school has given me; but long story short, I’m pretty ok with the fact that it’s time to go.

Amherst was very different than all the other schools I applied to as a high school senior. All the others were significantly larger and only two had open curricula, one of Amherst’s claims to fame. Though that might seem odd, in my mind, programs like Columbia’s core curriculum and Amherst’s open curriculum are really trying to get at the same thing: a diverse education. If you mandate that a student has to take certain classes in a variety of fields, they’ll certainly get exposure to a lot of different topics, but it could also just serve to re-establish a prejudice, perhaps against math when you’re in a generic calculus I class or English when you’re reading a survey from Shakespeare to Dickens. Amherst’s take is one that clearly allows for freedom, but every advisor I’ve had here has urged me to go outside of my comfort zone (or zones, as the case seems to be for nearly every Amherst student). Amherst also doesn’t seem fond of the survey class, so I regularly leave each semester with an eclectic set of papers saved to my computer. In that vein, I’d like to present here my most random bits of knowledge that I’ve gathered during my four years.

  • how to write the Arabic alphabet, from an attempt at Arabic 1 my freshman fall. All vocabulary and grammar rules are gone, but if you’d like me to write your name, I’m your girl.
  • how to pronounce and understand middle English, from Chaucer’s Shorter Poems that same semester. Maybe I can break this one out at parties? Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse, indeed.
  • how to understand happiness in one handy chart, from Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness. A type of bell curve as newness increases. A different cuisine? Happy. David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”? Not so much.
  • how to sing the part of Mary Magdalen in an Easter liturgical drama, courtesy of Music 221. There were fake candles, I sang in Latin.
  • how to turn ordinary sentences into a logic formula, from Logic my sophomore year. Math for humanities majors at its finest.
  • how to analyze and create my own music with Arvo Pärt’s system of tintinnabulation. I can’t explain it to you, please don’t ask me.
  • how to make a 50’s style innuendo out of anything, from Songwriting in Tin Pan Alley. Fishing, sailing, dancing, train rides, childhood rhymes… nothing is safe.

The great thing about this list, I think, is that a lot of these classes were taken within one of my two majors, English or Music. Amherst’s open curriculum isn’t just about diversity amongst disciplines but diversity within them. Yes, my little collection can read as pretty funny, and I could have written an article about how Amherst has taught me nothing practical and has just tried to make me an interesting party guest. But that’s not what I’m saying. Because even in my most random, specific classes, there are fundamentals that I might have missed if I were analyzing Shakespeare play after Shakespeare play.

I’ve learned how to work with people. Not always perfectly, but functionally. From skits in Arabic 1 to continuous collaborative songwriting in “Words & Music” and “Songwriting in Tin Pan Alley,” I learned to let a little bit of control go and ultimately got a better product because of it. ‘50s innuendos can only get better the more people are around to hear them.

I’ve learned how to prioritize. In my Survey of Russian Literature class, my professor would heckle anyone who showed up late to the Red Room. My logic problems were solved more smoothly when class wasn’t in twenty minutes. I can probably crank out a decent 3-page paper on a novel in an hour if I need to.

I’ve learned how to write. There’s certainly a level of “bullshitting” English majors are prone to. But if the end product is good, is that even really bullshit? I think any ability to write quickly and persuasively is positive, even if in the moment it feels like word vomit.

I’ve learned how to think. This is the cliché of liberal arts education, I realize, but I think it’s true. When you can encourage an English and music major into a philosophy class or an Arabic class or an econ class, and have her think of them as her “break” even as they challenged her, I think you’re doing something right. If I had taken core classes prescribed to me, or even more standard classes (freshman drop Math 112, I’m looking at you) I don’t think I could have found as much interest as I have outside of my majors. And that outside knowledge has enhanced how I think about everything. Logic formulas changed how I look at grammar forever. Tintinnabulati makes me wonder about the intersectionality of other disciplines beyond Pärt’s melding of math and music.

You might think, looking at my previous list, that the open curriculum has allowed me to avoid all substantive knowledge and taught me nothing at all. But if you look at it in the right way, you might see it’s set me up to learn anything.