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The Rochester Curriculum

A student wearing a graduation cap that says "ever better".
The Rochester Curriculum: Freedom, with intentionality

In the American system of education, college is the time in which students' intellectual growth and personal growth coincide—as they gain the ability to make a series of critical choices.

Most of education through the 12th grade, and most of graduate and professional training, is mandated by someone else—a school board, an accrediting agency, the demands of a profession or a career. In America, it is uniquely in the college years that students choose their subjects and thereby sharpen their interests, develop their skills, and focus their goals. Through the freedom of the so-called modular system of education that marks American undergraduate learning, students grow as thinkers and as persons.

The Rochester Curriculum takes the special character of college education seriously and attempts to craft a structure of learning that both respects the students as individual learners and takes full advantage of Rochester’s character as a research university. University researcher/teachers are self-motivated learners, people who every day work to sharpen understanding and create new knowledge. More than any other group in society, a university research faculty knows how to make learning the habit of a lifetime. The basic aim of the Rochester Curriculum is to break down the barriers between the way the faculty learn and the students learn so that students can make not just the content, but also the practice, of disciplined learning their own. The Rochester Curriculum is distinctive among American universities.

Students at Rochester are encouraged to explore a variety of disciplines during their freshman year. As students progress at Rochester, they choose a major, with at least 10 semester courses, in either the humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences (including mathematics and engineering). In addition, students choose a cluster of three related courses in each of the other two main divisions of the liberal arts named above. Students with a major in an accredited program in engineering or in optics only need to select one cluster.

More than 250 authorized clusters exist from which students may choose. Virtually every department and program in the College offers numerous clusters that meet the spirit of the Rochester Curriculum. Complete descriptions can be found on our clusters page. Examples from different divisions include:

  • Humanities
    • Ethics and Values
    • Media, Culture and Communication
    • Sustainability and the Humanities
  • Social sciences
    • Anthropology of Globalization
    • African-American Politics
    • Theoretical Economics
  • Natural sciences
    • Life through Time
    • Music Cognition
    • The Nature of the Universe

Additionally, with approval, students may propose exceptions to already existing clusters.

The Rochester Curriculum is simple, flexible, and reflects the true hallmarks of University life and learning—curiosity, competence, and community.

Curiosity—The most important discoveries in the history of science, the most enduring works of art and literature, and the most compelling theories of society are the consequences of curiosity—which brings with it scholarly or artistic energy and persistence that won’t let a question rest until it is answered. The freedom to follow one’s own curiosity is the prime motivator of faculty learning, and it works just as well for undergraduates as it does for faculty. Therefore, there is no restriction on students’ freedom with a system in which they must take required courses to “get them out of the way.” Instead, students take responsibility and build their college education out of their own interests, goals, and aspirations. Broad and free experimentation with ideas and subjects allows them to discover and sharpen their own interests and to learn their own strengths and weaknesses.

Competence—For students to understand how a field of learning actually works, they need to spend sufficient time in it to learn its language, become familiar with its artifacts, and experience its logic. The Rochester Curriculum allows them to do so—not just in their major, but also in two other fields across the liberal arts disciplines. A key mark of a Rochester education is a demonstrable competence in the three major realms of thought and analysis and the consequent ability to make informed intellectual connections across fields and disciplines.

Community—Curiosity does not thrive in isolation, and Rochester's researchers do not—indeed, cannot—work alone. Active participation in a community of inquiry and expertise, engagement in a heritage of curiosity, is a fundamental ingredient of the intellectual life in a research culture. By providing the framework for a major and two clusters, the Rochester Curriculum invites students into three different intellectual communities—three different sustained conversations about learning and ideas—during their undergraduate careers.