IMAGE:  June 2004
LINK:  Campus News
Chicago Journal  
University News e-bulletin  
LINK:  Features
More than meets the eye  
Chicago Seven: take three  
Bursting at the seams  
A historian's task in time

LINK:  Class Notes
Alumni News  
Alumni Works  

LINK:  Research
Research at Chicago  

LINK:  Also in every issue
Editor's Notes  
From the President  
GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine

GRAPHIC:  Campus News Chicago Journal

College Report

A concentration by any other name...

The College Council voted unanimously March 30 to change the preferred term describing students’ focus of studies from concentration to major, a switch lamented by undergraduates who revel in the University’s tradition of idiosyncrasy.

The College Council—consisting of 40 College faculty members, half elected, half appointed, who oversee faculty duties including admissions requirements, curricula, and grading—made the decision following the recommendations of both the Collegiate Masters and the advisory Curriculum Committee. The College Council had asked the Curriculum Committee to report on the possibility of switching the terminology when minors were approved, during the 2002–03 academic year.

“Though we have for some time considered making this change, which would put us in step with almost every other college in the country, it was the advent of minors [last spring] that brought about the vote now,” says Susan Art, AM’74, Dean of Students in the College. “To talk about concentrations and minors just doesn’t make sense.”

The change, which went into effect immediately, applies to all 56 courses of study listed in the online catalog. Some majors offer specializations, such as a focus on neuroscience within the biology program, says College adviser Kathleen Forde.

Student reaction to the switch has been mixed, with opponents, predictably enough, taking a vocal position. “I hate it,” says fourth-year Austin Bean. As an admissions tour guide, Bean informs visitors about the College’s academic requirements. “I’m going to call them concentrations until the day I die,” he says. “Majors sounds fascist. Stalin would call them majors.”

Defending the terminology change, Edward Cook, chair of the College Curriculum Committee and associate professor of history, says the switch makes sense because “almost everyone else” in American higher education—Harvard being one of the few, if only, exceptions—uses the term major. Cook notes, “It seemed most convenient to avoid the ‘Concentration? What’s that?’ questions.”

Chicago undergraduates have already used the term to describe their studies when “they were not trying to be technically precise,” he continues. “So it seemed a matter of convenience to switch.” The Curriculum Committee, he adds, did not solicit student opinion.

But to some students the change is more than a simple switch of words—it is a change in meaning. In a May 4 staff editorial, the Chicago Maroon editors argued that the term concentration was originally chosen to emphasize that specific areas of study were to be only specializations within the universal major of liberal arts. Switching to the more mainstream vernacular, the Maroon editorialized, means throwing “the baby out with the bathwater.”

“The Maroon, at least under its current editorial staff, has no intention of changing its wording,” the editorial read. “Furthermore, we wholeheartedly encourage all other members of the University community to similarly refuse the change.” (Full disclosure: this article’s author is the Maroon’s news editor.)

The term concentration dates to the early 1950s, when it was introduced amid revisions in the College’s curriculum. According to Art, the term described a course of specialized study replacing the outgoing, strictly general-education model associated with former University President Robert M. Hutchins.

The 1950s curriculum overhaul came because many students, graduate schools, and employers had difficulty accepting Hutchins’s program, Cook says. “People who wanted to stick to Hutchins’s plan were especially offended with words like specialty, specialization”—majors, in other words. “So the proponents of the new plan tried to avoid them. If you go to the course catalogs for the period 1952–55, you will see that some of the specialized study was simply called ‘a year’s study in X,’ while others started labeling it a ‘concentration in X.’”

As requirements evolved over the years, concentrations gradually expanded to an average 12 to 14 courses and began to resemble what is generally seen as a major. “There didn’t seem to be anything in the rather offhand adoption of the term concentration,” Cook says, “to compel us to keep it,”

Indeed, while some students were upset by the change, others took it in idiosyncratic stride. “That’s revolutionary—this University likes to do things that aren’t like everyone else,” says second-year Jose Portuondo. Because the switch does not functionally change his studies, he adds, it doesn’t bother him.—Isaac Wolf, ’06



2007 The University of Chicago® Magazine | 401 North Michigan Ave. Suite 1000, Chicago, IL 60611
phone: 773/702-2163 | fax: 773/702-8836 |