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Fewer Students Are Majoring in History, But We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Why

5 minute read

From debates over Confederate monuments to battles over America’s leadership in the world, understanding today’s contemporary challenges requires historical knowledge and historical perspective. Yet a new report by Benjamin Schmidt and the American Historical Association has revealed that a much smaller percentage of American college students are majoring in history than did in the past. In fact, the number of history BAs awarded each year has dropped more steeply since 2011 than any other undergraduate degree measured. Even accounting for increases in the numbers and types of students attending college, history undergraduates are woefully few: only 5.3 degrees per 1,000.

Commentators have asserted that economics are driving this trend. Since the recession of 2008, the conventional wisdom goes, students and parents are exercising cost-benefit analyses when it comes to higher education, determining that the high costs of attending college necessitate pursuing degrees with higher earnings potential upon graduation. In response, some universities have undertaken cost-benefit analyses of their own. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point plans to eliminate its history major. Other schools have reduced funding and eliminated positions.

But what if economic forces are not the sole factors behind declining enrollments? What if there are other reasons for these trends — something that could begin to be reversed through modest investments and simple adjustments? At a period in our nation’s history when understandings of the past are crucial to our present and future, we can ill-afford to consign the history degree to the proverbial “dustbin of history.”

First and foremost, we should not mistake the headline for the entire story. Despite the downturn in undergraduate enrollments, history as a discipline remains vibrant in many respects.

At Yale University, history is the top major among its the class of 2019. At the graduate level, public history — a field focused on communicating the subject to a non-academic audience — is blossoming, with more than 150 Masters programs nationwide. The number of new history PhDs has increased steadily over the past 30 years. And history majors get hired for numerous jobs in numerous sectors, earning good salaries in the process.

Secondly, we have a method for learning why students are making these decisions: ask them. Asking students what they seek from a history degree can give us insight into what can be done to reverse the trends, and indicates, perhaps, that the claim that this is simple economics may not, in fact, be the right diagnosis.

The case of Yale is particularly instructive. When Yale’s history department noticed a downturn in interest, they polled their students about what was missing. The department found that students wanted two specific things from their degree: a logical path and a cohort. In other words, they sought direction and community. They wanted to know what it would look like to move toward a history degree, and on from there. This was not a repudiation of the discipline, its job prospects or its utility. The history degree was not broken; it simply needed to be tweaked to meet students where they were.

The words “direction” and “community” seem appropriate for the post-millenial generation. For a generation come of age in a networked world shaped by social movements and social media, perhaps an interest in camaraderie and social connection should not come as a surprise. Humanities departments have incredible opportunities to foster the connectedness students seek, even while instilling the values of independent research and reflection.

Today’s college students were in middle school when the recession occurred. It affected their parents and older siblings more than it has affected them. The more relevant trend may be that of college- and career-readiness that starts for young people from the time they enter kindergarten. America’s young people have been told that they need to be building their resumes, charting their futures and preparing to succeed from the time they are old enough to read and write. Perhaps this reflects our perceptions of a more chaotic, competitive and uncertain world — socially, geopolitically and economically — in which careful planning is one’s best protection.

If our students seek even more direction and community from history departments, it would not cost universities much to offer it. This has been one early lesson of our Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova. In addition to scholarly programs and online resources, we offer a History Career Day and host a weekly brownbag lunch that fosters discussion around current events through a historical lens. While the results are early, making time and space for low-budget programs that build community and help chart a path has already helped bring new students in the door. Investing in people, not making cuts, will be the best options for renewing student interest in a history education.

A history degree offers students clear, tangible benefits: writing skills, research skills, critical thinking skills, an ability to speak intelligently about the past — all of which are vital today. It prepares students to be active and informed contributors to our democracy, to speak meaningfully and authoritatively about the past, and to use that knowledge to assess societal challenges and propose solutions. It can also offer students community, camaraderie, social connection and a path to what’s next, be it graduate school, law school or the workforce. The benefits to society are enormous—and the costs too high not to act.

Jason Steinhauer is the director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University.

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