Academic Major, The

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The major field of study is the most prominent and significant structural element of the American baccalaureate degree. For students it is often a key tp> choosing which college or university to attend. College catalogs frequently claim certain types of learning result from study in a particular academic major. They also often suggest that study in specific majors prepares individuals for graduate education and for specific jobs and careers, and that it can impart certain specialized knowledge. Research affirms that the academic major is the strongest and clearest curricular link to gains in student learning.

Across higher education there is a tremendous variety of academic majorsranging from art history to political science to zoology. Collectively these represent several hundred fields and subfields of study. The major field of study is often thought of synonymously with academic disciplines (e.g., history, physics, music); however majors also represent professional fields (e.g., education, engineering) and interdisciplinary fields (e.g., African-American studies, ecological studies). Employers interview students at specific institutions based on the perceived match between their needs and a corresponding major program. A significant portion of the gifts and grants given to colleges and universities come based on the rank, reputation, or perceived quality of one or more academic majors.

The major provides in-depth study in one of the fields in which an institution awards a degree. General education imparts knowledge, skills, and abilities drawn from the various realms of liberal learning and is the breadth component to the under-graduate degree. The major, on the other hand, is the depth component, providing the student with (a) terms, concepts, ideas, and events pertinent to the field; (b) models, frameworks, genres, theories, and themes that link phenomena and give them meaning; (c) methods of research and modes of inquiry appropriate to the area of study; and (d) criteria for arriving at a conclusion or making generalizations about that which is studied.

An academic major may serve multiple purposes. The major may represent specialization in a disciplinary or interdisciplinary field attendant to liberal learning, and as such can be regarded as non-preparatory specialization. It may also serve as the student's first introduction to a field of study that is manifested in postgraduate study as well. In addition, the major serves as preparation for one or several professional fields. Thus, a student may choose to study biology for its own merits, in preparation for graduate work in the biological or life sciences, or as preparation for entry into medicine or health-related fields. In some instances students may create their own majors reflecting their own interests or the specific competencies they wish to develop. Aside from such instances, the faculty with expertise in the field of study prescribe the entrance qualifications for students, the number of courses or credits required to complete the major, the content of those courses, the number and sequence of courses, and the requirement of exams, papers, or theses associated with satisfactorily completing study in the subject area.

The Rise of the Disciplines and Majors

Major fields of study emerged in the nineteenth century as alternative components of the undergraduate degree. In 1825 the University of Virginia offered students eight programs from which to choose, including ancient languages, anatomy, and medicine. Following the American Civil War, academics increasingly received their advanced training in continental Europe. Specialization at the undergraduate level and in graduate and professional studies developed quickly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The term major was first used in the 18771878 catalog of Johns Hopkins University, as was the term minor, signifying a course of specialized study less lengthy than the majorthe major required two years of study, while the minor required but one. From 1880 to 1910, institutions offering the American baccalaureate degree widely adopted the free elective system, whereby a student might choose from the courses offered by the institution to amass credits necessary for degree completion.

In research universities particularly, the German concepts of Lernfreiheit and Lehrfreiheit were freely interpreted by American academics as the professors' freedom to teach and to conduct research as scholarly interest and inquiry dictated, and as the students' freedom to select those courses, seminars, and topics that propelled the individual's intellectual development and curiosity. Majors and minors became widely adopted in such institutions, providing prescription and socialization of students to the language, perspectives, and values of disciplinary inquiry.

The development of academic majors deeply structured not only the curriculum but also the organization of institutions. Nearly all colleges and universities have academic departments that reflect the primary academic disciplines and applied fields of study, such as English, education, mathematics, and sociology. The department is often thought to be synonymous with the discipline or field of study, yet a department may offer several academic majors representing various subfields of study. Proponents of the department and the major argue that they enable an academic community to foster the development, conservation, and diffusion of knowledge. In contrast, critics claim that they promote intellectual tribalism, where specialization receives favor over the mastery of multiple epistemologies, where broader values of liberal learning and of campus unity are lost, and where innovation is inhibited due to parochial opposition to new subspecialties and research methods.


Most colleges and universities offer majors, though they are more common in professional and technical colleges than in liberal arts colleges. While they are common features of baccalaureate-granting institutions, majors are frequently only present in the pre-professional, technical, and vocational subjects of associate degree (two-year) colleges. Credits required for the major represent 20 to 50 percent of the bachelor of arts degree and 20 to 40 percent of the associate of arts degree. Study in a professional field may require more credits and a greater proportion of the overall degree within the major than study in a liberal arts field. Also, professional majors may be subject to professional accreditation and state licensing.

Courses within disciplinary, applied, field, and professional studies majors possess an inherent coherence generated by the knowledge structures and paradigms of that single discipline or field. While such courses may be highly bounded by the way knowledge is organized within a given discipline, they possess a certain inherent coherence as a result. Interdisciplinary majors possess a coherence represented in the theme or focus to which they are addressed, although they are more permeable to the addition of subjects or topics than traditional disciplinary majors. Thus, the American studies major may incorporate relevant courses from history and literature, but may also include art or architecture. Coherence is found in the interdisciplinary focus on American society and culture.

Interdisciplinary Majors

One innovation that draws upon the disciplines is the interdisciplinary major. One of the earliest inter-disciplinary majors was American studies. Arising in the 1930s, its organizers and proponents used the concept of culture to serve as one of its organizing principles. Other areas, such as Russian studies and Latin American studies, developed later, primarily due to government and foundation interests in foreign relations. Majors, like individual courses, come into existence in response to social, intellectual, or technical issues and interests. In the early 1970s, new interdisciplinary majors, such as women's studies and black studies, derived their interest from the civil rights movement. These majors relied on cultural issues for content and ethnography for method. Interdisciplinary majors often rely on related disciplines for their teaching faculty, and the inter-disciplinary majors often use what may constitute electives in traditional disciplinary fields. Thus, a course in women's literature may serve as an elective in an English major and a required course in a women's studies major.

Students, Academic Majors, and Disciplinary Knowledge

Disciplinary inquiry often supersedes institutional goals in defining the direction and purpose with which undergraduates study. A discipline is literally what the term implies. When one studies a discipline, one subjugates the ways one learns about phenomena to a set of rules, rituals, and routines established by the field of study. A student learns to study according to these rules, classifying phenomena according to commonly adopted terms, definitions, and concepts of the major field. Relationships among phenomena are revealed through the frames provided by the discipline, and the researcher or student arrives at conclusions based on criteria for truth or validity derived from the major field.

Disciplines can provide conceptual frameworks for understanding what knowledge is and how it is acquired. Disciplinary learning provides a logical structure to relationships between concepts, propositions, common paradigms, and organizing principles. Disciplines develop themes, canons, and grand narratives to join different streams of research in the field and to provide meaningful conceptualizations and frameworks for further analysis, and they impart a truth criteria used globally to define differences in the way knowledge is acquired and valued. They also set parameters on the methods employed in discovering and analyzing knowledge, and how they affect the development of students' intellectual skills. Not only are the paradigms of inquiry imparted by disciplines, but so too are values and norms regarding membership and scholarly conduct within the major field, as well as the preferred modes of learning (canonized texts, methods of investigation, and schools of interpretation). Disciplines provide much structure and coherence to learning. It is easy to underestimate their power and importance in the advancement of knowledge and understanding at the undergraduate level. It is not clear whether a student or a faculty member can be truly interdisciplinary without first mastering one or more disciplines. The ascendancy of the disciplines in the late nineteenth century and their continuing dominance throughout the twentieth century have left an indelible imprint on the shape and direction of the academic major. It also has subjugated the aims of general and liberal studies to the perspectives and political rivalries of individual departments and specialized fields. It was only in the late 1980s and 1990s that interdisciplinary studies, multiculturalism, feminist pedagogy, and a renewed concern for the coherence and direction of the undergraduate program began to assail the baccalaureate degree dominated by the academic major.

Evaluation of Programs and Majors

Academic majors are subject to review as part of the institutional accreditation process. Specialized accrediting bodies, such as the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology and the American Occupational Therapy Association, also evaluate many majors in applied and professional fields. Finally, institutions themselves often insist on periodic reviews of academic programs and their majors. Regional, specialized, and institutional program reviewers most frequently rely on the judgments and observations of peers in conducting these evaluations. Peer reviewers who visit a department or program as part of the accreditation process often praise those units that use their own statement of purpose and educational objectives to frame its description of the characteristics and competencies it intends its student to acquire in the given major. Such reviewers also expect the teaching faculty to establish measurable learning objectives for what they expect their student to learnnot only in specific courses, but in the major field as a whole.


At the outset of the twenty-first century, students, teachers, employers, parents, and lawmakers often ascribe a liberal arts education largely to the academic major studied; i.e., they believe the major and the degree are largely one in the same. Majors, at least conversationally, have become more imitative of graduate study. Until the rise of the universities, the elective system, and the academic major, mostif not allof undergraduate courses were taken by all of the students at an institution. The academic major, a twentieth-century phenomenon, implies a uniformity of curriculum for any group of students; however, that uniformity has become the major more than the institution in which it resides. That the academic major is a powerful and predominant tool of the baccalaureate degree is both its strength and its limitation.

See also: Curriculum, Higher Education; Faculty Performance of Research and Scholarship; Faculty Roles and Responsibilities.


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James L. Ratcliff

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