An article in The New Yorker caught my eye, describing how US universities have seen a noticeable decline in History majors over the past decade or so, give or take. The primary research supporting the article is from the American Historical Association and Professor Ben Schmidt of Northwestern, who found that comparing the class from 2008 and the dawn of the “Great Recession” to 2017 graduating class, the number of students across US universities declaring a History major has fallen by 33%. The impact of the economic downturn on families across the country made college aged students reassess their academic choices since they were living directly with the impacts of the brutal 2008-09 economic downturn. They essentially felt that pursuing more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) related pursuits would provide them more opportunity in the future.
And taking a longer view of the trend, the decline is even more pronounced as you can see in the graph below, also from Professor Schmidt. The graph may be skewed slightly because the amount of people getting college degrees has expanded a lot over the past 30 years, as has the percentage of international students who generally are more likely to pursuing STEM related pursuits. Even with that to consider, the decline is substantial.
Interestingly, a significant driver of this long term trend is the rapid growth over the same period of women on college campuses, where they now represent around 57% of all college students. Women have never had a huge percentage of History majors and that presence has declined consistently over the past 30 or so years as they too have pursued majors outside of the humanities.
The irony and interesting implied side effect of this trend is its impact on the broader population and their ability to consider what we are experiencing in our broader societal and political discourse compared to what has happened in years past.
“Yes, we have a responsibility to train for the world of employment, but are we educating for life, and without historical knowledge you are not ready for life,” [Yale Professor David] Blight told me. As our political discourse is increasingly dominated by sources who care nothing for truth or credibility, we come closer and closer to the situation that Walter Lippmann warned about a century ago, in his seminal “Liberty and the News.” “Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo . . . can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” he wrote. A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos. As he has proved ever since he rode to political prominence on the lie of Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump is all three. And, without more history majors, we are doomed to repeat him.The New Yorker
I was/am a History major as an undergraduate at Syracuse University many moons ago. I am proud that my daughter will be starting college next year and she will be pursuing a degree in History. History has, and will continue to be, a very important element of my family’s experience and discourse. And as we continue to experience the rapidly escalating challenge on what is the truth in our society, the lack of understanding by the
proletariat population on what has caused us to get to this point in our nation’s collective History will only accelerate the constant death spiral we seem to be riding.
There are people and talking heads that seem to claim we are in a “new normal” with new technology and new methods of communication that should not be compared to experiences of the past. I call ‘bs’ on that. Society in the US and the world has had to deal with disruptive innovation and technology for as long as we have been a going concern as a country, and even before that. Radio changed the game in the 1930s, television changed the game even more in the 1950s and really hit its stride disrupting the ‘world order’ in the 1970s during the Vietnam War and, wait for it, Watergate.
Studying History and appreciating the path that people and society have led to get to where they are today is something that all people should study at one point in their life. Looking back at certain periods of time (e.g. the 1960s), at certain circumstances (e.g. How George Washington’s decision to cross the Delaware when he did changed the fate of the United States), or at unanticipated situations (e.g. how the country’s path changed with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963) and how they impacted life and society will provide everyone with a sense of perspective that is immensely valuable during times like we are in today.
Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.George Santayana