History is History

Here is another article on a recent theme:

A recent study confirms a disturbing trend: American college students are abandoning the study of history. Since 2008, the number of students majoring in history in U.S. universities has dropped 30 percent, and history now accounts for a smaller share of all U.S. bachelor’s degrees than at any time since 1950. Although all humanities disciplines have suffered declining enrollments since 2008, none has fallen as far as history. And this decline in majors has been even steeper at elite, private universities — the very institutions that act as standard bearers and gate-keepers for the discipline. The study of history, it seems, is itself becoming a relic of the past.

It is tempting to blame this decline on relatively recent factors from outside the historical profession. There are more majors to choose from than in the past. As a broader segment of American society has pursued higher education, promising job prospects offered by other fields, from engineering to business, has no doubt played a role in history’s decline. Women have moved in disproportionate numbers away from the humanities and towards the social sciences. The lingering consequences of the Great Recession and the growing emphasis on STEM education have had their effects, as well.

Yet a deeper dive into the statistics reveals that history’s fortunes have worsened not over a period of years, but over decades. In the late 1960s, over six percent of male undergraduates and almost five percent of female undergraduates majored in history. Today, those numbers are less than 2 percent and 1 percent. History’s collapse began well before the financial crash.

This fact underscores the sad truth of history’s predicament: The discipline mostly has itself to blame for its current woes. In recent decades, the academic historical profession has become steadily less accessible to students and the general public — and steadily less relevant to addressing critical matters of politics, diplomacy, and war and peace. It is not surprising that students are fleeing history, for the historical discipline has long been fleeing its twin responsibilities to interact with the outside world and engage some of the most fundamental issues confronting the United States.

More at the link.

I’m not quite sure that I agree with his critique. First, it’s important to note that just because the number of history majors has declined, it does not mean that the study of history itself has declined – history remains part of most general education requirements, and of course people can minor in history while majoring in something else. And that something else, as noted, has to start paying off immediately.

But I don’t think that the popularity of the history major has much to do with academic historians’ engagement with the public sphere. My impression is that most high school and/or college students, if they are interested in history, are interested in the history itself. They don’t know who the big names are, or whether these people actually hold academic appointments (I certainly didn’t). There is still lots of popular history out there, whether in the form of books, television shows, movies, or video games (some of which, I feel compelled to state, is even produced by real academics, and most of which is based on work that they’ve done).

Or is the idea that popular and academic history have diverged too much in their concerns? Picture a young man who is interested in World War II on account of watching Inglourious Basterds and playing a lot of D-Day, who comes to university only to discover that the only course offered on World War II focusses heavily on Rosie the Riveter, race relations in southern factories, and Japanese internment. These are legitimate topics, of course, but you can see why some students might consider them of secondary importance to the actual war itself. I don’t think that this is as much of a problem as people think, but I admit that it can be a problem. History ought to be a house of many mansions, and any substantial history department should (and generally does) try very hard to recruit members who specialize in different times and periods… and approaches, including diplomatic and military history. But what happens if there are no applicants in those latter fields? This is a function of competitive convergence – there are so many would-be academics chasing so few jobs, that everyone specializes in something they think will win them employment, something designated “hot,” “up to date,” and “relevant.” No one is willing to take a risk on specializing in a niche interest. This is a shame.*

But I don’t know what can be done about it, except for all AHA member departments to make a pact to severely limit the number of Ph.D. students they take on, in the interests of loosening up and (paradoxically) diversifying the job market – even if it means that some of the professors will have to do some of their own grunt work, which means that it will never happen. Failing that, I do think that an expansive spirit is required, a deeply engrained (and enforced, if need be) principle that the same right that you have to do your thing guarantees someone else’s right to do her thing, i.e. a spirit of genuine diversity, whereby no one’s approach is better than anyone else’s. Alas, if team intersectional gets its way, very soon there will be a sort of Bechdel test for the acceptance of scholarship in Speculum or panels at Kalamazoo, because these people require constant validation and it’s never enough that they get to do what they want to do, you have to do it too. The totalitarianism behind this impulse has always annoyed me. Live and let live, eh?

* Robert Hughes (in his Culture of Complaint) quotes the critic Louis Menand:

most of the academic world is a vast sea of conformity, and every time a new wave of theory and methodology rolls through, all the fish try to swim in its direction. Twenty years ago every academic critic of literature was talking about the self, its autonomy and its terrible isolation. Today not a single respectable academic would be caught dead anywhere near the word, for the “self’ is now the “subject’ and the subject, everyone heartily agrees, is a contingent construction… what ought to be most distressing to everyone is the utter predictability of the great majority of the academic criticism that gets published.

He’s talking about literary study, but it applies in a lesser way to history too.

Our Appeal Has Become More Selective

Some sobering news from IHE:

History has seen the steepest decline in majors of all disciplines since the 2008 recession, according to a new analysis published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History.

“The drop in history’s share of undergraduate majors in the last decade has put us below the discipline’s previous low point in the 1980s,” reads the analysis, written by Benjamin M. Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University.

Some numbers: there were 34,642 history degrees conferred in 2008, according to federal data. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 24,266. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, there was a 1,500 major drop-off. And even as overall university enrollments have grown, “history has seen its raw numbers erode heavily,” Schmidt wrote, especially since 2011-12.

“Of all the fields I’ve looked at, history has fallen more than any other in the last six years,” he says. The 2012 time frame is significant, according to the analysis, because it’s the first period in which students who experienced the financial crisis could easily change their majors.

The data represent a “new low” for the history major, Schmidt wrote. While a 66 percent drop in history’s share of majors from 1969 to 1985 remains the “most bruising” period in the discipline’s history, that drop followed a period of rapid enrollment expansion. The more recent drop is worse than history’s previous low point, in the 1980s.

I think that one of the main reasons for the decline in the history major is on account of university tuition fees continually rising far beyond the rate of inflation, so that students, of necessity, must see university as a financial investment that needs to start paying off immediately, rather than an incubator of cultural literacy, informed citizenship, and a personal life philosophy, as it may once have been. I am not saying that history majors can’t perform well in a wide variety of jobs, precisely because they can conduct research and present it coherently, it’s just that they have to overcome certain hurdles before they can convince people to hire them. I would not discount the politicization of the discipline, although this is not nearly as bad as some commentators would like to suggest (the profession as a whole might lean to the left, but you can always find professors who keep their politics to themselves, or who are even conservative). But I take consolation in the fact that our appeal really is selective: to do history properly you need intelligence and motivation, literacy and hard work. These qualities are less common that you might imagine.

Washington and Lee

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Washington and Lee University has decided to make changes to the names of some campus buildings after concerns from students and faculty.

On Tuesday, the Board of Trustees announced that it will rename Robinson Hall as Chavis Hall, in honor of John Chavis, the first African-American to receive a college education in the United States. He graduated from Washington Academy, the predecessor of W&L, in 1799. Also, Lee-Jackson House will be renamed Simpson Hall in honor of Pamela Hemenway Simpson, who served as an associate dean of the college and helped move to a co-ed environment in the 1980s.

The board also announced that effective immediately, it will replace portraits of Robert E. Lee and George Washington in military uniforms inside Lee Chapel with portraits of the two men in civilian clothing. The board also ordered the doors to the statue chamber in the 1883 addition to Lee Chapel to be closed during university events.

These changes are not particularly radical, although I would be keen to know exactly how many “students and faculty” we are actually talking about here (university administrators love to sniff out mandates to do things they want to do anyway). Dropping the “Lee” from the university’s name, so that it reverts to “Washington University,” or changing the name entirely (cf. “Arcadia University“), would be very radical indeed. (Robert E. Lee was president of Washington College after the Civil War and promoted some innovative changes; the trustees appended his name to the place immediately upon his death in 1870.)

Here are some photos from the last time we were in Lexington, Virginia (2006). It is really quite a pretty town – featuring not just Washington and Lee, but also the Virginia Military Institute, the alpha chapter of Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc., and the grave of Stonewall Jackson.

Payne, Washington, and Chavis (formerly Robinson) Halls.

The Lee Memorial Chapel.

Outside Lee Chapel: Traveller’s grave.

And heraldry! This is the Washington and Lee coat of arms on Lettie Pate Evans Hall.

“Reeducation Campus”

Interesting article in City Journal about the political tendentiousness and intellectual poverty of most first-year seminar courses. Excerpt:

The programs often start with a “common read,” a book sent to everyone the summer before school starts, and proceed with lectures, discussion groups, seminars, courses, exercises, field trips, art projects, local activism, and whatever else the schools will fund. The programs are typically run not by professors but by “cocurricular professionals”—administrators lacking scholarly credentials who operate outside the regular curriculum. They don’t need to master an academic discipline or impart an established body of knowledge. They create a cocurriculum of what they want students to learn, which usually involves a great deal of talk about “diversity” and “inclusion.”…

Which authors should every college freshman read? If this choice were left up to serious scholars, you can imagine the candidates they’d suggest: Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, de Tocqueville, Dostoyevsky, Du Bois, Faulkner. And that’s why professors usually don’t get to make the choice. They don’t understand these authors’ limitation. Sure, Plato and the rest did fine work in their day, but they all suffer from a fatal flaw: none is available to speak on campus.

You need a live author with a rousing speech to appeal to today’s freshmen, or at least to the administrators of first-year programs who choose each year’s book. That’s why, when they convened in San Antonio, they were feted at lunches and dinners by publishers eagerly promoting not timeless wisdom but the fall catalog. Getting chosen as the common read means big sales—5,000 copies at a big school—and the publishers trot out their authors to perform 15-minute auditions during the meals.

Read the whole thing.

DK Responds

Apparently “both-sides-ism” is now a thing – a bad thing, because in a battle between truth and falsehood, there can be no neutrality or even critical distance. But to my mind, it goes without saying that the other side might have something to say, and that you might not be 100% correct. Even someone as firmly convicted as Oliver Cromwell enjoined his supporters to “think it possible you may be mistaken.” So, in the interests of giving equal time to “both sides” of the Brown-Kim feud, here is a link to a recent article on Inside Higher Ed by the latter of those parties. I present this excerpt without comment.

One way to measure a field’s commitment to safeguarding BIWOC (black, indigenous, women of color) scholars is to look toward its conferences. This last year has shown that organizers of prominent Medieval studies conferences are often not prepared to keep their participants safe. At various events, Fulton Brown deployed another tactic from the alt-right playbook: intimidation at speaking events, such as the Medieval Academy of America in Atlanta in April and the International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Mich., in May. Her actions can be interpreted as harassment and a bid to create a hostile environment for medievalists of color discussing diversity and inclusion.

At Kalamazoo, I requested security for the Whiteness in Medieval Studies 2.0 workshop that I was scheduled to lead. According to Seeta Chaganti, a professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and the session organizer, ICMS leadership cited “academic and intellectual freedom” to explain why they would not ask Rachel Fulton Brown not to attend the session. Chaganti wrote in a subsequent post how “academic freedom,” like “free speech,” has been weaponized for white supremacy.

UPDATE: And Milo responds to that.

UPDATE: Peter Wood weighs in.

Open Letter for Rachel Brown

The National Association of Scholars has organized an open letter in support of Rachel Fulton Brown of the University of Chicago. If you would like to sign, click the link. Paul Halsall said it well:

I disagree with many of Prof. Brown’s political views (which are a mix of conservative, libertarian, and some classical liberalism) but after on and off electronic conversations with her since the 1990s I am convinced that she is neither a fascist nor a white supremacist. The series of attacks on her by Dorothy Kim (formerly of Vassar, now of Brandeis) are fallacious. I find the support given to Kim by some other academics very ill-founded.

The National Association of Scholars, a fairly conservative but still respectable (?) group has now organised an online petition in support of Rachel Brown. I’m not really in favour of this sort of petition, but in light of a continued barrage of attacks by Kim and a petition signed against Brown, I think some gesture of support is necessary.

I therefore urge other historians to sign this petition, especially those among us on the political left who believe that we can continue scholarly and social discussion without resorting to the the “us” and “them” binaries that seem so appealing on social media.

I support Prof. Brown without agreeing with her. I suggest you do the same.

More on the Matter

Mark Bauerlein weighs in:

One reason, perhaps, why identity politics seems to be having difficulties in Medieval Studies that it hasn’t had in other fields has to do with the nature of the field. My area, American Literature, easily absorbed multiculturalism decades ago. But Medieval Europe is so mono-religious and mono-racial that efforts to “de-Eurocentrize” and de-Christianize the study of it have been frustrated. The field also puts a heavy burden of linguistic and historical knowledge on its practitioners. (You can’t do Middle English if all you know is American English.) Those elements exasperate the multiculturalist impulse, making Medieval Studies a challenge to all those younger academics who’ve been trained to undo white privilege.

More at the link.

More on Medievalism

Some followup to an issue referenced in Milo’s article.

1. Rachel Fulton Brown summarizes Eileen Joy’s problems with the International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University, and the subsequent resignation of Larry Swain, administrator of a Facebook group devoted to the Congress, over the appearance of the expression “growed like Topsy” in the description of this group.

2. Richard Utz of Georgia Tech refuses to sign a letter of support of Joy’s BABEL working group.

The organizers of the world’s largest annual meeting of medievalists, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, or ICMS, at Western Michigan University, stand accused of “a bias against” or “lack of interest in” sessions dealing with “decoloniality, globalization and anti-racism”– allegations that made their way into Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher EducationForbes and CampusReform and were summarized in a “letter of concern” medievalists were asked to support. Members of the steering committee of the BABEL Working Group, an innovative scholarly (para-institutional) collective of colleagues in premodern studies, are the authors of the letter. This letter was preceded by a Facebook post too undignified to be quoted here.

Normally, I would sign such a letter without hesitation. It promotes goals such as diversity, inclusion and metacritical scholarship for which I have advocated throughout my academic career, as an individual and together with the adherents of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. But I did not sign because I know more than most observers about this specific congress: I attended for the first time as a student in 1986 and, with few interruptions, as a participant since 1990; I also served as chair of the English department at Western Michigan and was an affiliate faculty of the Medieval Institute between 2007 and 2012.

I know the Western Michigan medievalists and reject the dotted line the letter of concern insinuates between the faculty of the Medieval Institute, on the one hand, and the racist neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., on the other. That line was even more than dotted in some of the simultaneous social media posts about the issue.

3. Josh Eyler, new administrator of the Facebook group, responds at his blog.

First, [Utz’s article] positions the debate as the BABEL Group versus the world, and this is simply untrue. Yes, it was the BABEL steering committee that authored the letter, but the hundreds of additional signatures indicate that the concerns raised in the letter are shared by many. Second, the article suggests that the issue of inclusivity is limited to an inclusion of areas of study and/or viewpoints on the field. This is certainly one dynamic, and I want to address it before moving on.

To demonstrate that the ICMS really is inclusive of different fields, Utz first cites the many (and diverse) types of traditional sessions that the ICMS has offered in the past, which have been sponsored by groups like the Pearl Poet Society and Cistercian Studies. He then suggests that the ICMS has embraced more recent areas of study by saying, “The 2018 program, for example, features the term ‘race’ nine times, ‘disability’ nine times and ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ 48 times.”…

The bigger issue, though, with respect to inclusion is one that the article barely even addresses, which is the degree to which scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups have felt included in both the ICMS and Medieval Studies. The call for ICMS to include more sessions about the state of the field is directly related to this larger point about inclusivity. It isn’t just a push for “progressivism” for its own sake but is a response to structures that have pushed people to the margins.

4. And Tom MacMaster responds to that (on the new Facebook group, Medieval Studies – State of the Field):

Hmm, I think he’s continuing to deliberately miss the point of much of the pushback to the Babylonians’ demands but accepting the frame that this is largely a dispute between, on one side, “inclusivists” who want to discuss a broader Middle Ages and white supremacists who want to preserve an all white (cisgendered, heterosexual, and male) scholarly community studying a exclusively all white Europe only Middle Ages. Unfortunately, while that might be comforting, I notice instead that the “two camps” seem to be largely made up of:

1) a group that doesn’t study the actual past but, instead, is centered in English Literature departments. And does largely reception studies of what happened in the southern part of one island (basically Beowulf, Chaucer, and friends) and is engaged in performative wokeness (well-off white liberals acting out what they envision as scenes of radical anti-racism to gain approval from other well-off white liberals and feel superior to the hoi polloi). They wish to force their activities on everyone else and demand that everyone else grant them status for being so woke online and in K’zoo sessions

and 2) a group full of people who are heavily from History and related disciplines who actually study actual medieval subjects and have been looking at these sorts of “big picture” issues for… their entire careers. Often, these are the people who read languages beyond English and its immediate forerunners and so, when told to “decolonize medieval studies” “look beyond England!” don’t apologize profusely for not having done so but return to their study of, say, medieval Iraqi texts, Mongolian expansionism, or the trans-Saharan slave trade. When they (we) are then shouted at for being wicked evil racist neo-Nazis for not thinking 100 sessions on “Medievalisms & transgendered POCs in WoW online” are the cat’s meow, a “camp” emerges.

The complaints that academic conferences covering the study of the Middle Ages are not spending enough time and energy on the study of the 20th and 21st century is the key complaint. Yes, many fantasy and historical fictions are set in the Middle Ages but no, they aren’t medieval; they are modern. And yes, some on the far right (as well as in the far left, center and everywhere else) use emblems in the middle ages.

But, among the Anglophone far right (and in these discussions, they are the only ones who count), the medieval is far less interesting than, say, the Second World War, the American Civil War, or the European Age of Imperialism and far less likely to be referenced. There are, of course, medievalist academics and others keenly interested in dressing up in costumes and carrying out violence in the name of early medieval ideals – that group of cosplayers led by an academic specializing in early medieval literature that took over Raqqa and Mosul comes to mind or the medieval references that litter the rhetoric of all sides in conflicts in the Levant (not to mention giant statues of medieval kings under construction by a party that has been accused of genocide); but none of those are of interest to this discourse. And why would they be?

The self-styled “progressives” and “anti-racists” in this discussion are only interested in Anglocentric and insular topics and seem to care little and know less about other fields.

It is all performance and it is frankly insulting to academics and anyone who isn’t an upper class white North American. It insults everyone outside the US by prioritizing the trivial and passing whims of American culture; it insults all non-whites by assuming that they need the patronizing protection of the benevolent and paternalistic (maternalistic?) woke white liberals and must be coddled and told comforting lies; it insults African-Americans by putting upper class Asians forward as the spokespeople of anti-racism and silences black voices; it insults all those concerned with truth, honesty and free and open debate by pushing a narrative devoid of evidence as the only true path.

The Latest

Milo Yiannopoulos weighs in on the recent kerfuffles on medieval studies. I like this paragraph [smiley face]:

The scholars causing trouble teach English; their targets tend to be historians. Medievalist researchers from English departments are more interested in literary criticism and tend to be in conversation with English professors working on other periods, preoccupied with postmodernism and post-structuralism; historians have to learn how to talk to other historians. Though literature-based medievalists do have language skills (most understand Old English, for example), the historians usually possess the more powerful and wide-ranging scholarly toolkits — and intellects.