Why are introductory classes called "101"?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 6 2006 6:25 PM

101 101

How did intro classes get their trademark number?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

The week after Labor Day traditionally marks the start of the semester for high school and college students. Many freshmen will kick off their college careers with courses like Psychology 101, English 101, or History 101. When did introductory classes get their special number?

In the late 1920s. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first use of "101" as an introductory course number in a 1929 University of Buffalo course catalog. Colleges and universities began to switch to a three-digit course-numbering system around this time. In 1935, two researchers from Kent State published a paper celebrating the efficiency of the new system: "Recently college catalogs have revealed a commendable trend toward a logical arrangement of course numbers," they wrote. "The loose hodgepodge of former years is giving way to systematic arrangement."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate


The three-digit arrangement at Kent State began with a number corresponding to the college year. Freshman courses, for example, started with "1." The second digit referred to the content area, or to whether the course could be taken for credit, and the third described its place in a sequence of classes beginning with "0." An intro English class might have gotten the number "160," as a first-year class (1--) serving as the first in a sequence (--0) for a given subject (say, -6-).

Schools made up their own numbering systems, so Kent State's "160" might match up to the University of Buffalo's "101." But late adopters had an incentive to mimic the choices made by other schools. In the 1920s, students began to think of college as a means of getting a job, which meant they had to obtain a credential that could be compared to the credentials from other schools. It was easier to compare intro classes at several schools if they all had the same number.

The move toward standardizing (and numbering) course catalogs began in the late 19th century. The then-president of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot, started the trend when he introduced the elective system and redesigned the university's catalog in 1870-71. Until that point, a college curriculum comprised a set of mandatory courses without departmental or subject headings. As research areas became more specialized, other universities followed Harvard's lead and began to divide up their catalogs into numbered, departmental offerings.

Somewhere along the line, "101" migrated out of academic institutional jargon and into popular slang. (See the headlines listed in the "Related in Slate" section at the bottom of this column.) The OED finds an example of this "extended use" from 1986. Etymologist and Slate contributor Benjamin Zimmer cites a couple of earlier examples: A 1972 Time article jokes that "Social Relevance 101" must be "a basic course on TV these days." And in a stand-up routine from the early 1960s, Woody Allen jokes, "I took all the abstract philosophy courses in college, like truth and beauty, advanced truth and beauty, intermediate truth, introduction to God, Death 101."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Roger Geiger of Pennsylvania State University and Philo Hutcheson of Georgia State University.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?