The Future of the History Major

Eric Martin's picture

The linked piece from Perspectives is not going to be news to most of the people on this list. But it does provide some additional context for a set of issues we are all facing.

My insitution in a comprehensive college that has an academic division, professional division, and vocational-technical division. Those of us on the academic side have always been under some amount of pressure to translate degrees directly into careers, like our nursing/business and diesel mechanic/auto body collegues do. For years, I have made what I suspect is the typical pitch for a flexible, professional skill set gained through a liberal arts education.  Most history majors do not become historians, but they do go on to use the historical skills they have been trained to use in a wide variety of fields. I have never been convinced that this argument was clearly bought by our good folks doing central advising or the parents of first generation college students (70% of our students fit this category). This article makes me wonder if I should save my breath and move on to other ideas for improving enrollments. 

We have made some effort to offer history courses appealing to science or business majors. But have run up against a couple of  additional trends, such as very little room for electives since 1. our overall degree requirements are strongly encouraged to be capped at 120 credits so that students can graduate as quickly as possible aother and 2. programs like to fill up as much as the 120 cr as possible with their own courses. This leaves us with trying to make the pitch for upper division history as a requirement (or an option) for non-history majors such as Business. And we have had some luck on that front with the Economic faculty. But it is a slow, hard sell. And, I wonder whether it amplifies the trend mentioned in the article of history becoming more of an intro course, with a few upper-division electives. 

I am curious as to what kind of solutions other instutions are coming up with for both increasing the number of history majors as well as increasing the number of students in upper division courses.

https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2...

 

 

 

Keywords: Query

I can only reply as a curmudgeon now retired some twenty years; I expect my views will appear quaint.

First, I don't understand why the decline in historiography's appeal should be addressed by our institutions. Obviously it is social needs and wants that have undergone change. In the late nineteenth century it was said that "history is the keystone of liberty" (but I've never been able to pin down who said it---it was not Lord Acton), and states spent enormous amounts of money to promote the study of history (for example, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica). Following World War II, UNESCO was convinced that the study of world history would greatly reduce the likelihood of wars in the future. While both assessments of historiography's value stood on very shaky ground, the point is that nothing better has arisen to replace them. Sadly, the postmodern solipsism fashionable in the West offers little chance of it.

Historians have failed to make a persuasive case that the study of history has great social value. If it is assumed it does, then historians exhibit a strange lack of imagination. This has traditionally been attributed to academic professionalism, but knowing this is not much help.

Folks, the skills we teach people are essential to the modern workplace: synthesis, analysis, argument, research, evidence assessment, interdisciplinary analysis, and written and verbal communication. History teaches all this better than any other discipline; we're even more future-oriented when we also teach collaboration and negotiation through projects and simulations. Understanding an issue from multiple sides, such as debates in which you don't tell students which side they are arguing or with other assignment parameters, is also essential. Ethical questions come up all the time in history, both in the situations we examine with students to their own research and writing decisions--a glance at the news makes this necessity urgent. Finally, we could do better at teaching and assessing another key skill, decision-making, which our students do all the time. Companies and organizations need people who can assess a wide variety of data points, make decisions, assess outcomes, and move forward. They also need people who understand and value varied points of view.

I was at a start-up company in Seattle yesterday with colleagues as we figure out what we need to do to evolve our institution (an independent school) to the changing needs of our students' futures. The company designs electric outboard motors for boats--pretty much as far from the topic of history as possible. And yet all of the skills I've just mentioned are things these business leaders said they want and need in their employees. To say nothing of what our political systems need from their citizens! Buck up, historians: the world needs you, and you need to let your institutions know it.

I always think it's a little sad to see someone occupying a curmudgeonly position alone. So, let me join Mr Brown in spirit.

It's hard to see that the study of history would have any utility to anyone in modern society disposed to take a progressive worldview (assuming that postmodernists are progressive in some sense).

A metaphor that comes to mind is found in Heraclitus' quote that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” In the progressive world, we (modern humans, a class to which I will modestly add myself) are not the same men (if I may be forgiven an old literary form) stepping into the same historical river.

Thus, a key objection to historical utility for someone holding this view is: What possible validity can the flawed and outdated iterations of human character that existed in the past have for Human Beings 2.0 today? New wine demands new bottles, so to speak.

Still, I do know of one group of professionals who value the study of history and, in particular, strive industriously to extract lessons at institutions of higher learning. These are the military professionals of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in their study tours at war colleges, who reject the view that human character has changed significantly over the millennia.

They can claim some history-based successes. The First Gulf War, for example, showed how well they had learned the lessons of the Eastern Front during WWII. However; the ongoing war in Afghanistan shows (or may soon show) the limited utility of their study when combined with our civil-military arrangement.

The military can study lessons on display, if not since Alexander the Great, at least since Britain ventured through the Khyber Pass in the mid-nineteenth century, but anything they might learn has proven impenetrable to the civil half of the civil-military team (not to mention some of those in uniform). That is, the part of the team that dictates strategic policies lacks very much understanding of the history involved.

It will take more than a handful of academic historians to correct this shortcoming, though it does seem to be worth the effort.

I refuse to accept that History is not a "relevant" major, progressive or not. We can learn from history even if humans have changed over the years. For one thing, we can learn how the change occurred and why; in a world that changes more rapidly than ever, this is knowledge that is quite useful.

However, the original poster's concern was about parents' perceptions. And parents DO demand that history professors assure them that this major will lead to a job. So the real question is, why are current parents so much more paranoid about the future of their children than parents in the 60s and 70s?

Ultimately, the cause of this problem is political. It began when many states decided that they need not ask taxpayers to assist with the cost of higher education. As state money dried up, tuition rose accordingly. At the same time, students demanded better accommodation, wireless communication, access to computers, electronic databases etc. All these cost money. And also at the same time, the Federal Government decided to cut grants to students, replacing them with loans, and leaving many students in debt peonage for decades after their college educations. Then, as if the government hadn't done enough, it began demanding an endless array of reports, expectations, investigations...on top of which, accreditation agencies demands rose as well. My university spends an enormous amount of money we do not have trying to keep up with the ever-escalating demands of governments and accrediting bodies. The administration has grown by leaps and bounds to feed this ever-hungry beast. And, thus, tuition continues to rise.

If parents are paying $100,000 for a degree, they want a guaranteed job at the end of it. Humanities professors know that their graduates do well, but proving that is very difficult. Meanwhile, the Business School at my university monopolizes the students, gets tons of money from business leaders and corporations, and goes from strength to strength. The fact that business leaders have destroyed our economy over and over again with their greed and sociopathy just isn't a factor for most of the people paying the bills. The other growth industry is health sciences, again, because they can "guarantee" a job at the end of the training. But at least they do something useful.

We can make the case, as some of you have done, that our skills are valuable, and, in a democracy, critical. Narrow training is useless; by the time many of the students get jobs, all those processes will have changed, but a student who can analyze, communicate, and use critical thinking skills will be able to adapt. But until taxpayers again believe that their money is well-spent giving ALL young people the chance for higher education (and thus pay to reduce tuition), there is little historians can do to stem the tide.This was a political choice. A series of mean-spirited decisions, made in state after state two decades ago, is now reaping the inevitable result. As a nation, we abandoned the idea that communities should work together to build an educated workforce and put it all on individual families and individual schools. And the result is that university is now purely a step in getting a degree and a "good" job (meaning one that pays lots of money), not to getting an education.

I used to say to people obsessed with science education that physicists made the atom bomb, but humanists explained we we should not use them. I'm not sure most parents, struggling to pay tuition bills, will respond much to that argument these days. So, to quote sports writers, the answer to all of your questions is money. When money is the value system, humanities suffer, as we don't measure the worth of what we do by dollars and cents.

I believe the solution will have to be political, too, and that will be a long, hard slog.

Ginger Frost
Samford University

No doubt economic anxieties have fueled the trends the article discusses. However, I agree with the curmudgeons here. Or I think I do. My view is that cultural forces today seem profoundly hostile to the kind of history thinking history teachers ought to be fostering. And unfortunately, I think far too many in the profession sail on the surface of those forces. I mean cultural forces insisting that we today have achieved a truth that eluded all previous societies (even including our own just ten years ago, say). Political activist types may think this relentless debunking fosters a more critical and useful engagement with the past. Instead, it seems to me to foster contempt for the past and an incredible hubris about the wisdom of the present.

Think, for example, of the arrogance of the term "woke." Some of us think we are "woke" now, for the first time ever. Glory be to us. Why then should we care at all about the sleeping centuries of the past? Better to get on with other programs. Meanwhile, those politically active on campuses police ideas and thoughts in such a way as to "protect" all students from exposure to ways of expressing things that might be in any way jarring. As an example, consider the minefield now facing any teacher who wants to expose students to the raw language and reasoning of Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their famous debates. Do history teachers stand a chance if they want students to enter those debates fully and from the point of view of each of the contestants? When I was a history major everyone understood they could actually learn something from such an effort. Today, we skip the contextualizing, the close reading, the corroboration of sources, the spirit of empathetic imagination, and jump to the judgment, which is always swift and unrelentingly contemptuous - in this example, likely of BOTH men. Why bother? The activists ought to face the fact that it is indifference, not citizen engagement, this fosters. Hence the history major holds no attraction for all too many.

I would be more convinced by that argument if history majors were rising at conservative schools like mine. I work at a Baptist affiliated university in Alabama. My colleagues are largely white men, few of whom have liberal leanings on issues of gender and class. For instance, I had to fight to get a single woman author offered in the "great books" course we teach first year students, and that one woman was dropped last year. My students are all extremely conservative as well.

The word "woke" does not appear in any discussions in my classes. I get criticized by my students if I spend 10-15% of my class time on women, who are, after all, half of humanity. I get political correctness from the right, never from the left.

And yet, despite our conservatism, our majors are also going down and have been for a long time. The problem is, as I said, their parents want them to major in something "practical." "What will you do with a history major?" is what they ask. I've never heard a single parent ask if we are too liberal or if we will concentrate on political, rather than economic or social, history.

I'm sure universities and colleges all differ on various issues and a wide variety of approaches prevail in the thousands of history departments across the nation. But the history major is going down everywhere. So something else is going on.

Ginger Frost

Thanks, Ginger, for adding an important materialist perspective to this conversation.
It's not just sports writers who benefit from the axiom: follow the money.
You framed your comments in terms of political economy; I'd push that even further toward an old-school historial materialism (however unfashionable these days). Unless we understand the basis of survival for high ed institutions, our students, and their families, we can't imagine how to change course during a period of tumultuous change.

Jonathan, I feel compelled to challenge your characterization of history teaching as having abandoned "the contextualizing, the close reading, the corroboration of sources, [and] the spirit of empathetic imagination."
That's what most of my colleagues actively and intentionally strive for in our classes. It's part of history-specific pedagogical scholarship. It's part of national conversations, some of them spearheaded by the AHA. (See the AHA Tuning Project for details: https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-disc... )

The WHA program every year includes teaching panels in which experienced history instructors demonstrate and debate how to build these skills in students in the US and internationally.

I see the discipline as actively engaged in reinventing itself while reinforcing core values and practices around which professional consensus has developed in the last century. To focus only on examples of sloppy thinking, or the general public's mischaracterization of what we do is a disservice to the thousands of teachers who labor with care and thought to develop historical skills and empathy among students across the K-16 spectrum, who responsibly prepare the next generation of teachers, and who devote significant time and resources to training early career researchers.

I'm not saying we should ignore the very real challenges we face, but to characterize the whole apple barrel as rotten does not help us develop strategies for convincing students, parents, and the general public that our expertise matters.

I agree with Ginger Frost that history is a relevant major, but I reject the notion that as government "money dried up, tuition rose accordingly" in some inverse relationship. That is quite simply wrong. Loan money has NOT dried up. Sadly, it is too widely available, as the student debt crisis proves. Millions of students are not in debt because they were unable to find a lender.

Taking only one example, this Forbes' article (see below) links to a 2015 study by the New York Federal Reserve Bank (updated in 2017) that concludes: "...we find that even when universities price-discriminate, a credit expansion will raise tuition paid by all students...."

(https://www.forbes.com/sites/prestoncooper2/2017/02/22/how-unlimited-stu... and
https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/research/staff_reports/sr7...)

There is a great deal of evidence that the “Bennett Hypothesis” is accurate and that colleges and universities seize on opportunities to raise tuition each time government student aid is increased. (I've yet to find an example of an actual cut, despite recent calls by the current administration to do so.)

Here are the historical aggregate limits for Stafford loans from 1967 to present:

Year Undergraduate Graduate + Undergraduate
10/1/1992 to the present $23,000 $65,500
1/1/1987 to 9/30/1992 $17,250 $54,750
1/1/1981 to 12/31/1986 $12,500 $25,000
5/20/1977 to 12/31/1980 $7,500 $15,000
6/1/1973 to 5/19/1977 $7,500 $10,000
7/2/1967 to 5/31/1973 $9,000 $9,000

Additionally, direct PLUS loans (federal student loan available to parents to help pay for college education) have been unlimited in their amounts since 1993.

Needless to say, tuition began a steady rise about 1987-88 (see, for example, College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2017).

None of this is to claim that student loans aren't a significant problem. They are, but that may actually explain parents' concern about their child having a good paying job at the end of four years in college. Personally, I suggest that the parents are right to be concerned, but I also would argue that they and their children have been poorly served by high school guidance counselors and others who push the four year degree as a necessity for EVERY high school graduate. That's also wrong. (And it is not the job of taxpayers to make their dreams come true, in any case.)

Perhaps a real cut in loans would have the beneficial effect of pricing children who are insufficiently talented/dedicated/focused from taking on huge loans to begin with. Maybe they could then learn a skill and even buy a house and have a family, something many of them may never be able to do.

I had not ventured beyond the role of curmudgeon because I hoped the discussion would open some positive suggestions for us to explore. Colleen Kyle had something positive to say, but no one was inclined to follow up.

Unfortunately what she said was much like what I was taught a half century ago. Things have changed. More specifically it seems her reason for studying history relies on the humanist fixation on the individual empowered by his or her rationality. But rather than suggest these cognitive skills are what make us human, she argues they are useful in the workplace. While this may be true for the fortunate few, I doubt it is so for the majority of people. And even for the few who do need developed analytical skills, learning to program in Java would perhaps convey it more efficiently. One must also wonder if our democratic values are compatible with a humanist study of history suited to an elite?

Being critical of tradition requires me to at least hint of a positive alternative. I wish I could do it, for I still believe historic consciousness is critically important. So let me throw this out. It seems that what is lacking these days is not critical thinking, but being able to engage in action that is at once efficacious and constructive. For such action one must be able to discover the possibilities offered by a situation and their relative probability for being actualized. I won't elaborate this philosophical point beyond suggesting that the discovery can only be achieved through joint social action that engages the unique qualities of others.

If this point be tentatively granted, it is obvious that it is profoundly presentist. There are sharp limits to what we can learn from the past (Kuhn's paradigm shifts come to mind). Only by resorting to objective idealism do values become universal rather than anchored to circumstance. However, the study of historical processes can demonstrate not only that action is always grounded by circumstance (encouraging us to be empirically responsive), but that circumstance is transcended it action is grounded as well by possibilities discovered through joint social action (we are socially committed).

I need to clarify something from my earlier message. Laura Mitchell misunderstands my central point, and perhaps it's my fault that she does. She says it's wrong for me to characterize history teaching as giving up on, as I put it, "the contextualizing, the close reading, the corroboration of sources, [and] the spirit of empathetic imagination." She goes on to say most history teachers do still do these things. I am not sure she is right that "most" history teachers do these things, but I am sure many of them do.

However, my point was really about the larger culture, the one students bring to their classes and the one that impinges on all of us. It is now, it seems to me, a culture of "judgment" and an especially pernicious presentist judgmentalism. Sam Wineburg shows this well in a report on some bright students responding to Lincoln's side of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which is why I referred to them in my earlier message. The jump to quick, facile, and presentist judgment is the opposite of how trained historians respond.

I recently watched a video of some students responding to video clips of old Seinfeld episodes. Mostly the laughed. But a majority of the students also found themselves cringing (in spite of themselves) at all sorts of "inappropriate" things said in the clips. None of the students seemed to question in the least applying their own parochial standards of judgment to something they all saw as alien and distant - even though (to the surprise of one of them) the distance is no farther back than the 1990s. What, I wondered, would they make of Jack Benny or I Love Lucy? I think it is this studied and relentless sense of superiority to the entire past of human history that makes history teachers' jobs so difficult. I certainly was not blaming teachers for this.

I have been following this thread for the past couple weeks. I have learned much from the contributions of everyone and am now doing my own research into the question. The posts have catalyzed an introspective struggle within my mind, heart, and soul. My heart goes out to all the history graduates, with a love for the discipline, who finish their degrees with bleak employment prospects and a mountain of debt.

Honesty is hard. Being honest about my own selfishness is even harder. I follow, and bow to, the GOD of money because I need to pay for groceries and rent every month. Though Thoreau is my favorite writer, at this point in my life, I can not leave society for a deliberate life of solitude in the woods. How can I tell a high school student with a love of history to major in history in university when my gut instinct says otherwise? I can not. I will not. I have no possible solution or alternative to the current, depressing reality facing the future of the history major. Maybe I am dead wrong about all of this. Maybe there is a solution to this problem which I can neither see nor recognize. I thought of the below quotation when reading through these posts:

“History, which interprets the past to understand the present and confront the future, is the least rewarding discipline for a dying species.”
― Phyllis Dorothy James, Children of Men

A big thank-you to Kerry Vieira for all her great work at the WHA, especially in organizing all the WHA annual conferences. Peace and goodwill to everyone on H-World.

jake hogan

I fear that by focusing on students getting a job, we're forgetting that there is more to life than work. A student who majors or minors in history for sheer love of the discipline has gained the tools needed to pursue a life-long interest in history, regardless of discipline. This comes under the heading of life enrichment, and it brings joy to people. My father was a small businessman, but he had a life-long love of history. In the evenings, he'd read history, and when we traveled, we often went to historic sites or museums. If his interests had to be confined to what he did for a living, his life would have been much poorer regardless of how much money he made. People like my father are the ones who volunteer at museums, sit on the boards of historical societies, and support preservation groups. If we discourage students from following their passion for history, think how much poorer our communities would be as a result.

Is it possible that in this discussion of the history major we have become too focused on "history careers" and lost sight of the fact that history majors are very capable individuals who do well in a variety of professions? We train students to think comprehensively about an event or issue, learn how to find and use credible evidence to support a conclusion, understand the challenges faced by underrepresented groups and communities, and reflect on how cultural differences shape communications and interactions. Students who have an abiding love of history should be encouraged to pursue it, but they should also receive solid advising that shows them ways to put the skills of the historian to work once they have graduated. This includes adding other majors or minors that give them a comprehensive skills and knowledge set which will better prepare them for a job market that may change dramatically over the course of their working life. We should encourage our students to think boldly about the possibilities and combine majors and minors that might not, on the surface, appear to be a close fit. Health administration and history? Accounting and history? Biology and history? Computer science and history?

There is considerable "value" in a history education, and it's up to us to make that value clear to students, parents, and community members.

I appreciate all of the thoughtful responses to my initial posting. A few follow up thoughts of my own follow.

I am not convinced that the history major is antiquated and no longer relevant to the modern college curriculum. Otherwise, I would not be asking for ideas to improve the number of history majors at my, very career focused, institution. The discipline has something to offer the citizens/labor force of the 21st century both in terms of the actual content of the major (understanding the human experience/condition at various levels) as well as the transferable, and employable, skill set required to understand the content (working with/analyzing various types of data).

In terms of the human experience/condition, I do wonder whether historians have made a strong enough institutional pitch across divisions to Business programs, Nursing, Computer Science etc… arguing for the importance of some degree of additional historical education across all majors. This approach may increase the numbers of students taking history courses beyond the general education core and in the process improve the perceived institutional “value” of the discipline in general. It might even help develop a group of history minors, although personally, I have had a hard time getting additional non-history, students who enroll in upper-division courses to translate into a declared minor.

I actually think the “enrichment” argument works quite well for the minor. And that can be translated for the more career minded into the idea that the discipline offers the ability to place one’s major/work life into a broader (historical, political, cultural etc.) context providing for deeper understanding, better decision making, and more career flexibility post-graduation. But, considering the considerable debt many of our students go into, I am not sure that the “enrichment” argument works as well for the major itself.

Does the undergraduate history major offer anything unique in terms of an employable skill set? Probably nothing that is not also offered by a wide range of other degrees in the Social Sciences or Humanities coming out of the Liberal Arts tradition. Many of those disciplines could also be promoted as teaching students how to collect, analyze, organize, and present data in various forms. But it seems to me that this is the argument to make for the history major at a more career-oriented institution.

We need to do a better job promoting our alumni who went on to jobs in the mental health field, own their own businesses, work for state agencies, or are loan officers at the bank. These alums should be promoted as success stories (assuming they feel they are success stories). If we are going to reverse the current trend in declared history majors, then students, parents, and central-advising at our own institutions are going to need to have a web of very concrete career options in mind that do not include become a teacher or go to graduate school.

I have serious reservations about encouraging any student, first-generation or otherwise, to go to graduate school. I am well known for this position in my division (that is a different discussion thread). However, I have zero problem encouraging students to pursue an undergraduate degree in history. Career prospects for history majors are bleak only if we are wedded to the idea that the goal of a history major is either 1. become a historian, or 2. is of no practical value in the workplace. But we are going to have to get much better at demonstrating the later to our students, their parents, and our colleagues throughout the institutions we work in.

I can think of several former students who graduated because they were actually interested in the content of the major. I am not sure they would have kept coming to school for classes they were not interested in. This also seems to be an important thing we have to offer, at least to a certain segment of the population. Perhaps it falls along the lines of “enrichment.” So, in this case the mission becomes to highlight, the very real, career paths/options to the student. Although, I am not sure that academics who have never held a job outside of higher education are in a particularly good place to make that argument to a first-generation college student.

As our university makes the transition from a liberal arts institution to a vocational school (not what the Uni President says is happening – but that is what it is), one thing that has helped keep major numbers somewhat stable is having a “large plan” major and a “small plan” major. The small plan major requires students have another major or a minor while the large plan makes no such requirement. The small plan is still bigger than a minor. As such, we have small plan majors that also come to us from business, health, music, art, biology, psychology, environmental studies, and the full range of the social sciences – students we might have lost had we demanded they major with us exclusively or be forced into two time consuming majors. It helps, if only a little. In general, we have also not grown our own large plan major (as other departments have) because we think our majors are better set up for the job market by having space to take classes in other areas of the university – such as some basic coding, non-profit business administration, anthropology or museum management. Perhaps we need to have more “tracks” for majors that could guide them a little more directly instead of such a focus on place: more “a history major with a track in non-profit management” instead of a “history major that knows loads about France.” The best tool we have in that regard is our alumni. The wealthiest member of our Board of Trustees is one of our graduates, and we have alumni in entertainment, sports, military, business, civil service and successful self employ.

We have had some success in retention of majors by having our “intro to the major” course spending time on which jobs students can expect after they graduate. We can show them the charts of where our alumni go, talk to them about phrasing the skills they learn in terms that businesses can understand, and talk to them about thinking creatively about what they want to do for a living, including using the old AHA flow chart of jobs for history majors. In the end, we might need to also start thinking about revamping the way that history majors are designed, requiring that they take some basic courses in digital and media literacy, marketing, hospitality and tourism, or other similar vocational majors. Of course, some of my colleagues would disagree and see this as a cheapening of the major.

Hi Eric,
If you're looking for specific evidence/ammunition for successful career outcomes for history majors:

Here's a list of CEO's with liberal arts degrees (Carly Fiorina of HP studied Medieval history as u/g)
http://time.com/3964415/ceo-degree-liberal-arts/

and the careers list from the AHA:
https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/career-reso...

Some well-known people with u/g history degrees:
Bill Bradley
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
(Both first famous for basketball, but went on to make important contributions as non-fiction writers)
John F. Kennedy
Joe Biden
Sonia Sotomayor
Newt Gingrich (just so it's not all lefties/Democracts)

And because I wasn't sure how I knew this info (trivia sticks in my head)
I went looking for some back-up on the interwebs and found a nice list on the UC Davis history department site:
http://history.ucdavis.edu/undergraduate/famous-history-majors

Employment, careers, and success are possible without a vocational education.

Laura Mitchell
UC Irvine