The Decline of Historical Thinking

Eric Alterman:

I do not refer to the obvious and ineluctable fact that some people are smarter than others but, rather, to the fact that some people have the resources to try to understand our society while most do not. Late last year, Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, published a study demonstrating that, for the past decade, history has been declining more rapidly than any other major, even as more and more students attend college. With slightly more than twenty-four thousand current history majors, it accounts for between one and two per cent of bachelor’s degrees, a drop of about a third since 2011. The decline can be found in almost all ethnic and racial groups, and among both men and women. Geographically, it is most pronounced in the Midwest, but it is present virtually everywhere.

There’s a catch, however. It’s boom time for history at Yale, where it is the third most popular major, and at other élite schools, including Brown, Princeton, and Columbia, where it continues to be among the top declared majors. The Yale history department intends to hire more than a half-dozen faculty members this year alone. Meanwhile, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, Bernie L. Patterson, recently proposed that the school’s history major be eliminated, and that at least one member of its tenured faculty be dismissed. Of course, everything gets more complicated when you look at the fine print. Lee L. Willis, the chair of the history department, told me that the chancellor’s proposal is a budget-cutting measure in response to the steadily declining number of declared majors, but it’s really about the need to reduce the faculty from fourteen to ten, and this means getting rid of at least one tenured member. To do that, it’s necessary to disband the department. (A spokesperson for the university said that “UW-Stevens Point is exploring every option to avoid laying off faculty and staff members.”) The remaining professors will be placed in new departments that combine history with other topics.

Stevens Point, in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, educates many first-generation college students, and, in the past, the history department has focussed on training teachers. Willis pointed out that, after Scott Walker, the former governor, led an assault on the state’s teachers’ unions, gutting benefits and driving around ten per cent of public-school teachers out of the profession, a teaching career understandably looks considerably less attractive to students. “I am hearing a lot, ‘What kind of a job am I going to get with this? My parents made me switch,’ ” Willis said. “There is a lot of pressure on this particular generation.” But he also noted a rise in declared history majors this past semester, from seventy-six to a hundred and twenty. “This perception of a one-way trend and we’ll whittle down to nothing is not what I am seeing,” he said.

The steep decline in history graduates is most visible beginning in 2011 and 2012. Evidently, after the 2008 financial crisis, students (and their parents) felt a need to pick a major in a field that might place them on a secure career path. Almost all of the majors that have seen growth since 2011, Schmidt noted in a previous study, are in the STEM disciplines, and include nursing, engineering, computer science, and biology. (A recent Times story noted that the number of computer-science majors more than doubled between 2013 and 2017.) “M.I.T. and Stanford are making a big push in the sciences,” Alan Mikhail, the chair of the history department at Yale, told me. Other universities have tended to emulate them, no doubt because that’s what excites the big funders these days—and with their money comes the prestige that gives a university its national reputation. David Blight, a professor of history at Yale and the director of its Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, tells a similar story when it comes to funding. In a recent meeting with a school administrator, he was told that individual funders were all looking to fund STEM programs—and, Blight said, “It’s the funders that drive things.”

Nonetheless, the history major continues to thrive at Yale, in part because it’s a great department with a number of nationally known stars, all of whom are expected to teach at an undergraduate level, and in part because it is Yale, where even a liberal-arts degree opens almost all professional doors. As Mikhail said, “The very real economic pressure students feel today is lessened at Yale. Need-blind admissions make a big difference, together with the sense that a Yale degree in anything will get them the job they want, even at places like Goldman or medical school.” The school’s public-relations department recently made a promotional video about Fernando Rojas, the son of Mexican immigrants, who made national news a few years ago when he was admitted to all eight Ivy League schools. Rojas, who found an intellectual home at Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, intends to pursue a Ph.D. in history.