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.

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