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History of the Faculty of Arts

History of the Faculty of Arts

McGill College, and with it the Faculty of Arts, officially opened on 6 September 1843. The early curriculum, heavily weighted in classical studies, also included lectures in mathematics, logic, French, history, geography, and law. There were very few students: only 15 by 1848.

Sir John William Dawson, who became principal in 1855—an office he would hold until 1893—would institute numerous reforms and lay the cornerstone for the reputation of excellence the Faculty enjoys today. In his inaugural address to the Board of Governors in November 1855, Dawson made it clear it was his intention to provide a curriculum which would range from the classics to modern languages and the professions, and from physics to engineering. Dawson worked quickly. By the late 1850s, instruction was offered in natural history, chemistry, agriculture, mathematics, natural philosophy, classics, history, English literature, logic, and mental and moral philosophy. By 1860, enrolment in the Faculty had climbed to around 50 students.

1884 marked a milestone in the history of McGill and the Faculty of Arts, for in that year Lord Strathcona, Donald Smith, made a donation that allowed for women to be admitted to McGill. The first class of "Donaldas" as they were called in honour of their benefactor, graduated in 1888. By 1889, women constituted one-third of the total enrolment at the College.

In the 1890s, while the general Arts course was still firmly based in the classics, requiring graduating students to be prepared in Latin and Greek, mathematics, and English, a paper on "the leading events in English history" was also required. Honours programs were available in the following disciplines: classical languages; mathematics and physics; mental and moral philosophy; English language, literature, and history; geology and the natural sciences; and modern languages and history.

Over the next two decades, under the leadership of Principal Sir William Peterson, the Faculty continued to expand. In the humanities, the Departments of Classics and Philosophy expanded, as did the Department of Modern Languages, to which offerings in Spanish and Italian were added to those already existing in French and German. The first lectures in Economics and Political Science were offered in 1900 and the first chair in Political Economy was established in 1901. In the sciences, what had been natural philosophy was divided into the disciplines of Physics, Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology. By 1914, enrolment in Arts was at 776.

As the cornerstone faculty of the University, when new social science disciplines emerged over the years, and when the School of Social Work was founded in 1923, they and it were subsumed into Arts. So, too, were disciplines in the sciences. By 1931 the sciences had come to form a substantial part of the Faculty of Arts. While they had their own needs distinct from those of the humanities and social science departments, they did not want to break away from Arts entirely. The solution reached was to rename the faculty the Faculty of Arts and Science. With only minor modifications, this structure endured until 1971 when the science departments left Arts to form the Faculty of Science.

In the post-war years, the Faculty also saw other changes, including in 1967, the removal of the classical language requirement. In the humanities, the Departments of Russian and Slavic Studies, East Asian Languages and Literature, and Linguistics, the Jewish Studies and African Studies programs, and the Institute of Islamic Studies were established. The social sciences saw changes as well: as disciplines further self-defined, they separated into distinct departments. The Department of Economics and Political Science split into two as did the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. And the Faculty grew in size. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of students in the Faculty of Arts and Science increased from 2,500 to 6,000.

Since then, the Faculty has continued to grow and has continued to respond to developments and changes in the world of academia and the world at large. Today, the Faculty is made up of 15 departments, 22 interdisciplinary programs, the School of Religious Studies, three professional schools (the School of Information Studies, the School of Social Work, and the Max Bell School of Public Policy), four institutes, and 12 centres. It has over 300 tenured or tenure-track scholars, over 8,100 undergraduates and over 1,200 graduate students, and offers several hundred courses.

Source: Frost, Stanley Brice. McGill University for the Advancement of Learning. (2 vols.) Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1980 (vol. 1), 1984 (vol. 2).

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