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Northwestern University

A History of Weinberg College

Founded in 1851 as the College of Arts and Sciences of the North-Western University, what is now named the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive of Northwestern’s undergraduate schools. Today the College enrolls more than half of all Northwestern undergraduates. The inaugural class, which met for the first time in November 1855, consisted of ten young men, each of whom was required to be at least 15 years of age. While women were not admitted to the University until 1869, by 1900 women represented fully one-half of Northwestern’s undergraduate student body.

In the 1850s the College offered two courses of study: a classically-oriented Bachelor of Arts degree and a more practically-focused Bachelor of Science degree. The curriculum for a Bachelor of Arts degree followed the English collegiate model of the time, consisting primarily of courses in ancient history and literature, mathematics, and Greek and Latin. Candidates for the Bachelor of Science degree studied courses such as French and German, chemistry, physics, anatomy, and an even larger dose of mathematics.

From 1851 to 1900, the College evolved under the growing influence of coeducation, public land-grant institutions, the German research model of university education, and the introduction, in the early 1880s, of elective courses. In the first half of the 20th century, the period of social, political, and economic upheaval punctuated by the Great Depression and the two World Wars also had a profound impact on the College. The most important change was a shift away from the freedom of electives to a more prescribed “core” curriculum that reaffirmed the values of liberal western democracy as taught in increasingly popular courses in Western Civilization.

The imperatives of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik promoted the view that the natural sciences were of vital importance to the nation and resulted in increased attention to these subjects within the College’s curriculum. In the 1970s, the emphasis on interdisciplinary study that distinguishes the College today took shape in response to changing conceptions of human knowledge. Four examples of such interdisciplinary courses include the American Studies program founded in 1974, the Integrated Science Program, which began in 1976,  the Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences program, which was introduced in 1978, and the Neuroscience program, which began in 2015.

Drawn from a three-article series on the history of Weinberg College by William N. Haarlow titled “What Students Studied and Why: The College Curriculum,” which appeared in three editions of Crosscurrents magazine: Spring, 2004; Fall/Winter, 2005-2006; and Fall/Winter, 2008-2009.

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