The crisis of the humanities at public universities is not one of historians’ own making

Historians in the News
tags: history



Steven Conn is a professor of history at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio.

… For those of us at public institutions at the mercy of vindictive state legislatures, the deck has been stacked against the humanities by a set of mandates. Take "dual enrollment" courses, for example. These were created to allow small numbers of students to get college credit in specially designed high-school courses. Recently, however, they have exploded as legislatures have made it easier and easier for students to get dual-enrollment credit, including removing caps on the number of dual- enrollment courses a student can take and by eliminating student and textbook fees for the courses.

As Alex Lichtenstein, a historian at Indiana University at Bloomington, pointed out recentlyin the American Historical Association’s Perspectives magazine, just 132 students took dual-enrollment courses in Indiana 10 years ago. Today the number is well into the thousands, though the quality control for these courses hasn’t kept up. 

Even worse, in a growing number of states — 17 and counting — students who don’t want the hassle of dual-enrollment courses can simply get a 3 on the Advanced Placement test to receive college credit — an idea that must have been piloted in Lake Wobegon. Does anyone really believe that a 3 on this exam is a genuine substitute for college work? I doubt it, but for politicians who object to the humanities on principle (and, not incidentally, for the College Board), "AP3" is the gift that keeps on giving.

States legislators love AP3 because it amounts to a kind of higher-education outsourcing. Texas Representative John Zerwas, the sponsor of a new AP3 law, helpfully cuts to the chase describing the legislation’s real purpose: "Students could hypothetically enter college with a full semester’s credit if they complete the core curriculum classes through the AP exam route," he said. 

Exactly. And lo and behold, as Lichtenstein reports from Indiana, enrollments in history survey courses there have dropped from 1,700 to 500 since 2009. Those numbers are surely representative of history and English enrollments — the two programs I suspect have been hit hardest by AP3 — in public universities around the country. According to 2014 data from the College Board, U.S. History and English are far and away the most popular AP exams. More than 462,000 students took the AP U.S. History exam last year, while a few more than 117,000 took Macroeconomics. More than twice as many students got at least a 3 on the U.S. History exam in 2014 as took the Physics B exam….




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