History Is A Thing Of The Past

According to The Daily Beast, there’s been a precipitous drop in undergraduate history majors:

George Orwell famously forewarned in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” We shouldn’t be surprised then by some recent, disturbing trends in the study of history.

According to a new analysis by the American Historical Association, the number of students choosing to major in history at the nation’s colleges has plummeted. Undergraduate history majors have fallen by more than a third in less than a decade, declining to their lowest levels since the ’80s. The evidence indicates that the vanishing history major is not a short-term response to the Great Recession’s lousy job market. If anything, the trend is accelerating. The undergraduate history major seems to be on the way out.

The lone exception is at the Ivy League schools. Regarding why, what history they’re interested in, and other questions, I suppose we’ll have to wait and find out. But I thought the news an interest comment on the state of the culture overall. Head over here for the full story. — CC

Photo is from Princeton in 1931, with actor Jimmy Stewart on the right. 

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13 Comments on "History Is A Thing Of The Past"

  1. Canadian Trad | January 17, 2019 at 7:47 pm |

    I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to earn a history degree from a fine public university. I had some financial support from my family (including room and board), part-time union jobs, Medicare, and an excellent public school education. Without the support of my family, community, and fellow citizens I never would have been able to dedicate four years to such noble pursuits. I’d have had to go into something that would have justified my work with a big pay day.

  2. Caustic Man | January 17, 2019 at 7:49 pm |

    I have been thinking lately about how difficult it is to teach history to undergrads. They simply don’t get it, to a large degree. And it’s not because they are just being exposed to the nuances of the field, which are difficult to grasp. They don’t get it because their first instinct is to moralize rather than to do the more difficult task of silencing the self long enough to utilize their powers of moral imagination to envision a time and place very different from their own. History is an act of empathy for people whose values we might be sickened by. And that’s hard work, indeed. But that act of empathy can give us a perspective that allows us to make decisions with the full knowledge that making healthy choices in life is the same thing as making a pact with the long dead and the yet unborn. Whether we like it or not the dead have voices. They speak across chasm of eternity to tell us that our assumptions are invented and our beliefs are not transcendent. Everyone in the 21st century instinctively knows that they should think of the future when they make decisions in the present but history tells us that we should think of the past at least as much.

    And so why does history matter, in a practical sense? Because history is the battleground of the present. It was a battle over history that created the feminist narrative that women are oppressed by men. It was a battle over history that created the narrative that immigrants are stealing jobs. It was a battle over history that erected Confederate monuments and another battle that pulled them down. It doesn’t matter what your political or religious or social beliefs are, your present is being created by battles over the past. It is about time we renewed our commitment to the dead if we have any chance of keeping our promises to the unborn.

  3. Mark Russell | January 17, 2019 at 8:50 pm |

    Isn’t that Jimmy Stewart on the left?
    (Or right as you look at the picture.)

  4. Jesse Livermore | January 17, 2019 at 9:38 pm |

    James Michenor graduated from Swarthmore College.

    That is indeed Jimmy Stewart

  5. Thanks. Post updated. The page where I found the photo was confusing. We’ll have to do a follow-up on college-era shots of Stewart.

  6. I wonder if the History Major, per se, isn’t being replaced by a variety of “(Something) Studies” majors? Or if the perception among undergraduates is that History will not be taught in an unbiased manner? Not to mention that the University as “job training” has been pushed for a number of decades now, well before the last recession.

  7. Old School Tie | January 18, 2019 at 2:30 am |

    CM – absolutely, because Millennials have been thoroughly brainwashed and we now live in their post-truth society. History requires both examination of the facts and empathy in order to understand. Millennials only offer hysteria and antipathy, on the whole. Even if they “get” history, they will attempt to rewrite or even erase it if it does not supporty their ideologies or current belief systems. Lamentable, but oh so true…

  8. Caustic Man | January 18, 2019 at 7:24 am |

    I don’t pin this on millennials (is there really such a thing, anyway?) because I have had a lot of older non-traditional students who don’t get it either. I think something much more far reaching is at work here. At this moment whatever than force is might be culminating in the culture of youth but it has been at work at least since Foucault.

  9. NCJack I think you might be correct. Traditional majors are increasingly being replaced with new “interdisciplinary” departments and programs. I am a professor at a large state flagship university and we have created many new degree programs and changed the names of some departments to attract students. The students that may have been traditionally interested in history, may now be majoring in American Studies, Asian Studies, African American Studies, Gender Studies, International Studies, Museum Studies, and the list goes on and on. Also, university education is now purely utilitarian. Students (and administrators too) are here to earn what I think now equates to a certificate so they can improve their career prospects. That is a fine goal for pursuing a university education, but I fear it has become the only goal.

  10. Charlottesville | January 18, 2019 at 11:17 am |

    Caustic Man — Thanks for your well-stated observations. Moral indignation, often loudly and emotionally expressed, is too often viewed as a substitute for, or even superior to, reasoned analysis and argument. Everyone thinks that he or she, if living in some distant time, would be one of the noble few who opposed oppression, violence, selfishness, etc. The fact is that the majority of people tend to go with the flow of their era. There were more people in the stands cheering on the lions than saints refusing to bow to the emperor. Trying to understand why, as you point out, is hard work.

  11. @Old School Tie

    I always wince when I hear or read the words “post-truth”.

    God bless you all.

    Will

  12. @Old School Tie: careful with the generational labels; many older millenials (such as myself at 34) attended university before the iPhone and social media explosion of ~2007. I’m not a history major per se, but did do a BA with a double major in Anthropology and Classical Studies, the latter focusing mostly on Silver Age of Latin literature.

    I don’t recall my classmates trying too hard to rewrite or erase it, but I do know that in both subjects we were required to examine the development of the discipline and the schools of thought behind certain theoretical frameworks – some which were definitely a product of their time. I think Anthropology in particular is afflicted with preoccupation with self-reflection, owing to its colonial connections.

    And Classics, well, the department at my alma mater is terminating niche majors and consolidating programs to stay afloat. It was already combined with the history department decades ago.

    Even today, there are some bright young undergrads who, no doubt, were able to understand the critical thinking skills my professors tried hard to instill into us.

  13. elder prep | March 3, 2019 at 3:01 pm |

    Caustic Man captured the essence of why the young have such difficulty in comprehending the past. Well written. I’m a guest lecturer at PennState in contemporary military matters. I’m startled at the lack of knowledge of the past, and I’m referring to the more milestone events. Will the Ivy league schools, as noted above, become the keepers of the past? I hope not, we need a larger memory base than that.

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