Niall Ferguson

The Decline of the History BA and What to Do about It

“The History BA Since the Great Recession: The 2018 AHA Majors Report” which was published by the American Historical Association in late November 2018 has set off alarm bells across the profession.

The report found that since 2008, of all major disciplines, history has seen the steepest declines in the number of bachelors’ degrees awarded. In fact, history’s share of BA degrees has reached an all-time low since records have been kept on this subject since 1950. Benjamin M. Schmidt, the report’s author, is convinced that the recession of 2008 is largely (but not exclusively) to blame. As he puts it, shifts in attitudes toward history “are not just a temporary response to a missing job market; there seems to have been a longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students.” Since students and their families appear to have become more skeptical of the usefulness of the major, history departments need to develop persuasive arguments that counter this tendency. Schmidt is careful to point out, however, that since decline of the major has been uneven among different groups, institutions, and regions, “each department is facing its own constellation of factors that may make the decline more or less severe.”

Whatever the case, the report makes for sober reading, and it has inspired a series of articles that seek to determine the source of history’s decline so as to chart a path to recovery. One response has come from advocates of “applied history,” that is, those who believe historians ought to develop lessons from the past with an eye toward shaping policies that could resolve contemporary problems (see Robert Crowcraft on this score). Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin, for example, have argued that the History BA has suffered because “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.” Historians, they claim, are no longer engaged in public life, no longer addressing the critical issues of the day and no longer interested in “constructive engagement with policymakers” (see another example of this argument here). It is for this reason, Brands and Gavin assert, that “students are fleeing history,” for the discipline “has long been fleeing its responsibilities.” The solution consists of offering more political, diplomatic, and military history; fostering greater public engagement among historians in these fields; and restoring cooperation between the academy and government.

These assertions, however, are not altogether convincing. For one thing, Brands and Gavin’s claims about what historians are or are not doing are debatable. While historians might not be advising, say, presidents, they do engage with the public in a multitude of ways. For another, it’s not clear to what extent engagement with policymakers is good for the country or for the profession as a whole. This blog has already criticized applied history as articulated by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson for its reductionism and problematic use of analogies. And Brands and Gavin’s example of Woodrow Wilson engaging the country’s leading diplomatic historians to help him prepare for the Versailles Peace conference is perhaps an unfortunate one.

So far as resurrecting the major is concerned, though, there are two overlapping problems with the kind of argument that Brands and Gavin make. First, they present a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t recognize the varying circumstances of different institutions. Second, they make assertions about what should be supplied without having presented any evidence that they have studied demand. Brands and Gavin assert that it “hardly seems a coincidence that undergraduate interest in history has plummeted” just as the discipline has ceased teaching subjects central to understanding national and international politics, but this argument by correlation is vitiated by the admission that “direct causation is difficult to prove.”

Interestingly enough, Brands and Gavin have pointed to Yale University as an institution that is actually gaining majors because it has stuck with the time-tested subjects of political, diplomatic, and military history. They are correct that the number of history majors at Yale and several other Ivy League schools is rising. But history might not be thriving at the Ivies because of the subjects that are taught there. Jason Steinhauer points out that when Yale noticed the number of history majors declining, it asked students what they wanted. The history department found out that students asked for

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.

Steinhauer goes on to write that direction and community make sense for a post-millenial generation that has come of age in a networked world bound by social media. The point here is not that direction and community are appropriate for everyone; rather the point is that Yale asked students what they wanted. That seems like the best path toward rescuing the BA in history.

As we think about winning back majors, we probably ought to remember another important point that appears in an essay by Elizabeth Lehfeldt in Inside Higher Ed. Lehfeldt writes

Ask someone why they majored in history, and many of the answers will circle back to a strong emotional connection to the subject. It might have been a professor who told captivating stories about the past. Or an instructor with so much enthusiasm for the subject that they couldn’t help but get pulled in. In short, behind every history major is invariably a great teacher who connected them in some way or another to the power of narratives about the past.

This point jibes very well with One Thing after Another’s experiences. Students who enter Saint Anselm College as history majors often do so because they had an inspiring history teacher in high school (sometimes even a Saint Anselm College alum). And those who major in history after arriving at the college make the commitment because they have forged a connection with one of the faculty here. Lehfeldt continues by pointing out that history departments need to reinforce this enthusiasm by giving students assignments (especially research assignments) that provide them with meaning and purpose. History departments, she argues, should be more mindful about creating such assignments, especially ones that allow students to “change something beyond the walls of the classroom.” At the very least, instructors should link small tasks in class to the big picture as a means of motivating students. In some cases, the big picture might be related to diplomacy and high politics. And in many other cases not. “Applied history” is not just about statesmanship; as Lehfeldt suggests, history can be applied in many, many different ways to attract students.


The British Empire is Dead–But the Debate over Its Morality is Not

A recent essay by Kenan Malik in the New York Review of Books details the latest public spats among historians over the merits of the British Empire.

As Malik states, “like all such debates, this latest controversy comprises many threads.” Was colonialism good or bad? How should one debate these questions in academia and politics? And what has inspired the most recent flare-up in a long-running dispute?

Malik recapitulates the main outlines of this dispute between detractors and defenders of the British Empire. He concludes that “the arguments for the moral good of colonialism are . . . threadbare.” So far as most scholars of the empire are concerned, Malik is correct. The British Empire killed, enslaved, starved, and impoverished too many people on too many occasions over too long a span of time to qualify as a Good Thing. (However, that is, and should be, a different matter from claiming that it was the equivalent of, say, the Nazi Empire. The emergence of liberalism in Britain led to the rise of an influential and persistent party of home-grown critics who castigated the British Empire throughout much of its lifespan—surely an unusual if not unique situation for an empire. Moreover, this liberal strain made the British Empire, among other things, susceptible to the moral suasion of swaraj in India, a weakness from which other empires did not suffer. But that is an argument for another time.)

Malik goes on to assert that the contemporary defense of empire is inspired partly by a Brexit-induced nostalgia for the colonial past, and partly by a desire to learn lessons that will make contemporary Western intervention abroad more effective. In other words, those like Niall Ferguson, who hold the British Empire up as a force for good are not merely engaging in an act of wistful schmaltz; they are thinking about contemporary policy prescriptions that revolve around “foreign intervention and technocratic governance.” Malik concludes:

These are very contemporary issues, and ones with which liberals wrestle as much as reactionaries. Liberals may despise empire nostalgia, but many promote arguments about intervention and governance that have their roots in an imperial worldview. We should not imagine that apologists for empire are simply living in the past. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates. That makes it even more important that their ideas and arguments are challenged openly and robustly.

One Thing after Another takes a special interest in this question because this blog teaches a course on the British Empire and, as part of the final examination, asks students to perform a “moral audit” (to use Piers Brendon’s words) of that empire. Piers’ argument that “Imperium et Libertas” was a sort of oxymoron in which an imperium necessarily ruled by force (and undermined libertas) to compensate for its lack of legitimacy carries much weight with this blog. In other words, there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Britain’s version of colonialism. Yet, this blog feels that in an otherwise good essay, Malik elides two important issues.

First, the argument about the British Empire’s merits has been subsumed by a more general dispute about colonialism. The problem with discussing colonialism is that it is not terribly easy to define in a precise manner, and the more one speaks of colonialism (and theories of colonialism), the more one speaks of an abstraction rather than the actual operation of real, flesh-and-blood empires. Discussions about colonialism, then, do not always sufficiently distinguish between different types of empires and often lack nuance. They surely do not capture the historical British Empire which was a mutating and complex entity; merely referring to the source of evil as “colonialism” suggests a static, simple, and monolithic entity. Due to its size, variety of interests, diversity of peoples, and assortments of governing structures (e.g. responsible self-government, crown colonies, protectorates, mandates, princely states, etc.), the empire did not frequently act in unison or speak with one voice. Not only that, but the empire was constantly transforming itself, a fact that is captured by the periodization of scholars who refer to the “first,” “second,” and even “third” and “fourth” British empires—as well as to the different characteristics in each of these phases (e.g. mercantilism, free trade, the “swing to the east,” and so on). Recognizing the bewildering, changing, and kaleidoscopic nature of the empire raises an important question: at any given moment, who or what was the empire? In other words, who was responsible for “colonialism”? Lenin, of course, argued that the culprit was finance capital. He was wrong, but at least he had something specific in mind. As conducted today in public, the debate is not as incisive. The word  “colonialism” conjures up images of the British government in London, imperial administrators, and military leaders. In most minds, it also probably includes British financiers, merchants, and industrialists. But just where does the list end? To what extent was the rest of the country complicit in the crimes of empire? What of the empire’s many British critics who used Libertas to attack Imperium (surely, as a number of observers have pointed out, a unique circumstance for an imperial power)? Our questions cannot stop with the United Kingdom’s borders. What about, say, Indians who worked for the Raj or performed vital functions in the imperial economy—princes, zemindars, soldiers, policemen, low-level administrators, railroad employees, merchants, bankers, and so on?

Second, like many observers, Malik analyzes the motives of the empire’s present-day defenders, but what of its detractors? If “today’s apologists for colonialism are driven as much by present needs as by past glories,” to quote Malik, what are the “present needs” of those who attack the empire? Why does no one scrutinize their motives? Do they get a pass because they are on “the right side of history”? It would seem naïve to claim that they are simply engaged in a disinterested effort to correct interpretations of the past. One example here will suffice: Shashi Tharoor (whom Malik mentions), a former UN administrator (who lost the contest for UN General Secretary in 2006 to Ban Ki-moon) and Indian minister as well as a current member of the Indian Parliament. Tharoor became an anti-colonial stalwart in 2015 when he famously argued at the Oxford Union that Britain ought to pay India a nominal sum in reparations as symbolic compensation for losses the latter suffered under imperial rule. He followed up this performance with Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), a polemic which dwells on the Raj’s cruelty and callousness while explaining how Britain grew wealthy at India’s expense. What is Tharoor after? Certainly, he is not attacking the promotion of “foreign intervention and technocratic governance” that ostensibly lie behind present-day justifications of the empire; it would seem odd for a former UN administrator like Tharoor to assault the empire in an attempt to undermine the case for liberal internationalism. It is possible that Tharoor seeks to burnish his credentials with a young, leftish, educated, Anglo-American crowd as someone who has stayed “woke” by engaging in Britain’s venerable anti-establishment tradition of excoriating the empire. Yet this explanation does not seem fully convincing. Although he has longstanding ties to the transatlantic world (he has lived and worked in Britain and the United States for long periods of time), it appears that Tharoor has committed himself to Indian politics for the time being. And it is perhaps the demands of domestic Indian politics that explain Tharoor’s stance. Tharoor is a member of the Indian National Congress (Congress) which has vainly sought to restore its declining popularity among voters by shedding its traditional mantle of secularism and moving closer to the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which currently rules India. For sure, Tharoor continues to speak the language of inclusion (witness this excerpt from his recent work Why I Am a Hindu), but he, like the rest of Congress, must feel the political pressure of Hindutva (or “Hinduness”). Under these circumstances, attacks on an empire that has long gone and demands for reparations that will never be paid must seem like harmless ways of currying favor in a more stridently nationalist political environment. Certainly, these attacks and demands have gone down well in India. Perhaps Tharoor’s motives can be explained in some other way, and perhaps his situation is unique, but it would not be surprising if the empire’s critics were inspired just as much as its defenders by contemporary politics.

Surely, many probably worry that those who defend colonialism and the good the British Empire did are inspired by a kind of neo-imperialism that will lead to more foreign adventures that culminate in disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan (although Nigel Biggar and Bruce Gilley seem to imply that the whole point of understanding the true nature of colonialism is to avoid making such mistakes when intervening in other countries’ affairs). But as we have seen in Tharoor’s case, we probably also have reason to express concern about the motives of those who denigrate the British Empire. As Bernedetto Croce claimed (and this is not the first time One Thing after Another has referred to Croce’s statement), “All history is contemporary history.” In other words, the concerns and ideas of a historian are, by necessity, dictated by his or her times. History is always political, and no more so than when scholars and politicians use it to make a political point. It is almost futile to inveigh against the forces that prevent the historian from assuming an objective standpoint. Yet in this case, as in others, it seems that all would be better served if historians took the leading role in promoting nuanced and incisive discussions of the past—instead of those who feel most directly the great weight of politics.