Why we need history majors to understand our future

tags: history, higher education, academia, history majors, public engagement

Knute “Mossback” Berger is senior writer and columnist at Crosscut and host of the Mossback’s Northwest TV series on KCTS 9. He writes about politics and regional heritage. Previously he served as Editor-in-Chief of Seattle Weekly, Editor & Publisher of Eastsideweek, and as Managing Editor of Washington Magazine. He is Editor-at-Large for Seattle Magazine and has written two books, “Pugetopolis” and “Space Needle, Spirit of Seattle.” He is a regular commentator on KUOW-FM and a Rainier Club Fellow. 

“My job these days is looking for silver linings,” says Margaret O’Mara, history professor at the University of Washington.

History and historians, if you haven’t noticed, are facing an existential crisis. It’s not just a problem of Seattle’s trashed gargoyles or threatened music venues. It’s the profession of teaching history, it’s the curriculum, it’s funding. We’re in a time of great “precarity” in academia, O’Mara says regarding the humanities.

We’re having coffee in Madrona after both returning from the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians in Philadelphia, an organization where historians from colleges, universities and high schools, as well as independent researchers, come together for a deep dive into the latest in American historical research. On that score the field is thriving with new and original work on race, class, equity, urban rethinking and the impact of tech.

But throughout the conference, there was an undercurrent of worry about funding, the elimination of tenure-track jobs and the declining number of history majors. There’s been a 33 percent decline in history majors since 2011, a precipitous dunk since the Great Recession, described by Smithsonian magazine as an “exodus.” It’s even worse at the UW. According to a story by Katherine Long of The Seattle Times, history majors at the U Dub are down 46 percent since 2008. Liberal arts and humanities majors generally are also in decline nationally and here.

Call it a stampede to STEM, up 50 percent on the UW’s campuses. With the cost of college high and the demand for tech skills booming, liberal arts education increasingly is being muscled aside by the idea that to survive in the future economy, one must have a science or engineering degree. Parents of college students are insisting their kids get on the STEM track. “Parents want return on investment,” O’Mara says. “Your major has become your destiny.”

Read entire article at Crosscut

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