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…use of “major” was coined by William Rainey Harper…

“Major” is pure Chicago too
The controversy over the College’s replacement of the term “concentration” with the term “major” has an ironic background, since use of the word “major” as an academic term was coined by William Rainey Harper in his meticulous and detailed plans made even before the opening of the University of Chicago. However, its meaning was entirely different from the current one. A “major” was a course that met for 8 to 10 hours per week, for a term of six weeks. (Each quarter was then divided into two terms.) A “minor” was a course that met 4 to 5 hours a week. As originally planned, a student would take one “major” and one “minor” in each term. A little later, in 1895–96, the term “major” also came to mean a course that met for 4 to 5 hours a week for a full quarter. See Goodspeed, A History of the University of Chicago, at 143 and 152, and Storr, Harper’s University: The Beginnings, at 119. These books, and Goodspeed’s more personal memoir As I Remember, will very much repay a reader in revealing the astonishing genius of Harper, a truly Promethean figure.

John D. Lyon AB’55
Los Angeles

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