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.