"The Historical Profession is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide"Historians in the News
tags: education, history crisis
Hal Brands, a historian trained at Yale University, is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies in Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order, with Charles Edel. Francis J. Gavin, a historian trained at the University of Pennsylvania, is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the School of Advanced International Studies in Johns Hopkins University.
A recent study confirms a disturbing trend: American college students are abandoning the study of history. Since 2008, the number of students majoring in history in U.S. universities has dropped 30 percent, and history now accounts for a smaller share of all U.S. bachelor’s degrees than at any time since 1950. Although all humanities disciplines have suffered declining enrollments since 2008, none has fallen as far as history. And this decline in majors has been even steeper at elite, private universities — the very institutions that act as standard bearers and gate-keepers for the discipline. The study of history, it seems, is itself becoming a relic of the past.
It is tempting to blame this decline on relatively recent factors from outside the historical profession. There are more majors to choose from than in the past. As a broader segment of American society has pursued higher education, promising job prospects offered by other fields, from engineering to business, has no doubt played a role in history’s decline. Women have moved in disproportionate numbers away from the humanities and towards the social sciences. The lingering consequences of the Great Recession and the growing emphasis on STEM education have had their effects, as well.
Yet a deeper dive into the statistics reveals that history’s fortunes have worsened not over a period of years, but over decades. In the late 1960s, over six percent of male undergraduates and almost five percent of female undergraduates majored in history. Today, those numbers are less than 2 percent and 1 percent. History’s collapse began well before the financial crash.
This fact underscores the sad truth of history’s predicament: The discipline mostly has itself to blame for its current woes. In recent decades, 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. It is not surprising that students are fleeing history, for the historical discipline has long been fleeing its twin responsibilities to interact with the outside world and engage some of the most fundamental issues confronting the United States.
Consider the first of these issues: the retreat of scholarly history from the public square. There was a time when academic historians actively engaged in shaping policy on the critical issues of the day, and when the top academic historians wrote for a larger public audience. Woodrow Wilson engaged the country’s leading diplomatic historians to help him prepare for the Versailles Peace conference. Eminent scholars such as William Langer, Arthur Schlesinger, Ernest May, and Richard Pipes served in or consulted with government while retaining their academic positions during the Cold War. Schlesinger, Daniel Boorstin, C. Vann Woodward, and Richard Hofstadter wrote widely read books that drove public debate on issues such as political reform, populism, McCarthyism, and the broader American political tradition. ...
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