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August 02, 2016

 In the late 1960s, Amherst College switched from a core curriculum to an open curriculum. (WGBH/Kirk Carapezza)

At Amherst College in western Massachusetts, Catherine Epstein takes us down to the school's archives. 

Epstein teaches history at this small liberal arts college. She’s also dean of the faculty at Amherst, which enrolls about 1,900 students and offers more than 850 courses, many of them small seminars.

Sitting around a big oak table, Epstein dusts off the 1966 leather-bound course catalog and compares it to the 2016 paperback version. 

The 1966 edition has just 223 pages. The 2016 edition? 591.

More pages means a lot more choices.

In the late 1960s, during a period of cultural unrest, Amherst and other liberal arts colleges switched from a core curriculum - where students all took the same courses like English, Math and the History of Western Civilization - to an open curriculum giving students options with very few requirements outside their majors.

“You can do whatever you want - choose courses all across the curriculum and if you never want to take a math class, you don’t have to take a math class,” Epstein explained. “If you never want to take a science class, you don't have to take a science class.”

As we flip though the catalogs, Epstein gives me a sampling of some of the college’s history offerings like Wine, History and the Environment or Race, Empire and Transnationalism: Chinese Diaspora Communities in the U.S. and in the World, which, Epstein says, is not an obscure class at Amherst.

“I would describe it as a fascinating class that's looking at really important issues that confront the world today,” Epstein said. “It’s all good stuff as long as it’s taught in a rigorous way where students are challenged; where students can express their thoughts.”

With a $2 billion endowment and a $60,000 sticker price, unlike many of its peers institutions, Amherst can afford to offer all of these courses. As the cost of college continues to soar, though, critics are raising questions.

Michael Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and he keeps tabs on courses that he thinks are frivolous. Sitting in his office, he ticks some of them off: Video games and the Boundaries of Narrative. Knowing Television. Disney for Grownups. Vampires and Other Horrors in Film and Media. American Dream: from Scarface to Easy Rider.

Poliakoff has spent a lot of time studying the evolution of course catalogs.

“What we've seen is the multiplication of course options often without rhyme or reason or any real respect for the kind of intellectual nutrition that students need,” Poliakoff said, pointing to recent studies that find many college students finish their four years without learning much more than what they came in with.

“When we allow these failures to go on, we are damaging the future of the nation,” he said.

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Professors at Amherst reject that criticism. While some of their courses may sound soft, they say students are in fact learning hard skills like how to analyze a text and understand an argument.

Nicola Courtright, who teaches art history at Amherst, says the college’s open curriculum creates an ideal learning environment.

“Students know that they’re not just taking classes because they should or they might get a job afterwards. They really have to take it out of fundamental interest," Courtright said. "When you are at Amherst College and you’re teaching there you know that every student wants to be there.”

Courtright says faculty would like to offer even more courses. and administrators seem open to the idea. Next fall, they’re imagining a history course on the Broadway hit Hamilton.

Administrators say that’s exactly the kind of course Amherst excel at creating and teaching.

Shirley Wang contributed to this report.

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