“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.