Open Curriculum: “We craved greater authenticity”

The 1960s was marked by pivotal moments in Brown’s history: from Vietnam War protests to an emerging idea that would come to be called the “New Curriculum.” While back on College Hill for his 50th Reunion, Richard Crocker ’69, P’02 AM’18 reflected on the roots of the Open Curriculum and its impact on the University, higher education and beyond.

Richard Crocker '69


We craved greater authenticity

Describe what you remember about being a student at Brown during the genesis of the “New Curriculum.”

We were part of a generation that craved greater authenticity. The sense of taking responsibility for our own education was an innovation that was part of the times. There was something to protest which was the Vietnam War. Which was the embodiment of an institution — the United States government — telling us to do something which they thought was right and most of us thought was wrong. And certainly some of our energies went into protesting events like the war.

But some of the energy went into asking this institution, Brown University, to be more committed to authentic education. Education which we as students felt was authentic because it came from our own direction.

When Elliot (Maxwell ’68 LHD’94 hon., P’06) and Ira (Magaziner ’69 LHD’94 hon., P’06, P’07, P’10 MD’19) sounded that call the result was being able to convince the faculty to make the major changes that were made — being able to convince the faculty that what students were asking for was, in fact, what they as faculty also wanted.

You said that students at the time wanted a more “authentic education.”  What do you mean by that?

One of the things that was important to me was having a more personal relationship with professors. I felt that lecture classes were often really arid. How much can you convey in a lecture to 100 people? What I wanted was much more active involvement in my own education.

In my own experience, this resulted in tapping into some opportunities that Brown already had. Over my freshman year, I got into honors classes in English and psychology, which were basically seminars. They were much more what I thought college education should be about than the huge lecture classes that were more dominant. 

So I structured the rest of my experience at Brown, trying to take those small seminar classes. It was an exceptional opportunity. I had lecture classes as well, and a couple of them were very good. There are teachers who are very gifted lecturers. But I think it's more common to learn better when someone is leading something out of you. Seminars had more ability to do that, in my perspective.

How has the Open Curriculum redefined a Brown education?

Brown has acquired a reputation for difference: a different way of empowering students to be responsible for their own education in a way that seems to many people still fairly radical. Certainly, there are other colleges that have wholeheartedly adopted that model. But Brown has thrived. It has thrived I think because there is a market for students who want the kind of independence that Brown offers. Independence and support. 

Brown attracts students who are more interested in taking charge of their own education. Who are more interested in taking risk. Who are less interested in the outcome and more interested in the process of becoming educated. 

I don't think the Brown approach to education will ever be dominant in American higher education. But it has established itself as not only viable but successful in the way that it is working here. I am told by people in the admissions office that the Open Curriculum is one of the main factors that students say attracts them to Brown. That in itself tells you something.

What would you say to current or future Brown students about the value and impact of a Brown education?

You can do far more than you may have thought before because what you have learned at Brown is to take charge of your own learning. This means that you have an unusual capacity to enter into almost any kind of study or field, and you will learn how to prosper in it. 

You've also learned about what interests you. But you've learned more than that. You've learned how to learn about what interests you. That may mean that you're going to take further education in places that are dedicated to teaching you particular skills—medical school, law school. But it may mean that you're also qualified and interested in developing new kinds of approaches to art or learning or education. Or, if you go into a traditional field like medicine, you're going to go to it with a different attitude. You're going to carry with you that sense of “what I learned in this field is what I make myself learn.” So, I'd say your world's your apple. Go for it.

How does it feel to be back on campus for your 50th Reunion?

There's been many physical improvements to the campus. And many of the aspects of a Brown education that the class of 1969 wanted to help improve — have happened. So there is a sense of nostalgia but also a greater sense of appreciation for what Brown has become.


At Brown, Richard Crocker pursued the honors program in English and American literature. After graduation, he became a Rhodes Scholar and studied theology at the University of Oxford and Vanderbilt University. He went on to become a Presbyterian minister, serving as pastor of churches in Tennessee and New Jersey, dean at Elizabethtown College, and college chaplain at Bates College and Dartmouth College.

(Published October 2019)

Related Links