George Orwell famously forewarned in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” We shouldn’t be surprised then by some recent, disturbing trends in the study of history.
According to a new analysis by the American Historical Association, the number of students choosing to major in history at the nation’s colleges has plummeted. Undergraduate history majors have fallen by more than a third in less than a decade, declining to their lowest levels since the ’80s. The evidence indicates that the vanishing history major is not a short-term response to the Great Recession’s lousy job market. If anything, the trend is accelerating. The undergraduate history major seems to be on the way out.
Yes, a small number of colleges are bucking the trend, but even that bit of positive news for those who think the study of history matters should cause alarm. More on those schools below.
Of all college majors since the financial crash of 2008, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that none has fallen faster than history, which has experienced the steepest declines by far in student concentrators. In 2008, there were 34,642 majors in history; by 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the number had fallen to 24,266. The drop off in the study of history comes despite the rise in college enrollment in recent years.
“Of all the fields I’ve looked at, history has fallen more than any other in the last six years,” says Benjamin M. Schmidt, a history professor at Northeastern University who analyzed the data. Schmidt has tracked numbers for students majoring in history over several years and finds that improving overall job prospects for the nation’s liberal arts graduates have not slowed the downward trend. If anything, it is getting worse. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, some 1,500 fewer American undergraduates chose to major in history. The drop-off has continued even among students who entered college long after the economic recovery began.
Where a student studies also has little impact in numbers choosing history (except in one sector of campuses): History majors have fallen across the board and throughout the country—at research universities, small and large colleges, private and state institutions, among white and nonwhite students, as well as among both men and women. The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point proposed last month to eliminate its history major (together with a handful of other majors in the liberal arts), citing declining enrollments. Other colleges have begun cutting faculty wholesale, hollowing out their history offerings. Due to steep falloff in student interest, last summer the University of Akron announced plans to eliminate advanced degrees and significantly reduce course offerings in history. Like bobby sox and saddles shoes, study of the past at many colleges and universities seems not just to have gone out of style; it is going away.
One sector of the nation’s colleges is not following the fashion. Even while students are leaving history courses off their college transcripts at most colleges around the country, several among the nation’s elite colleges seem to be in the midst of a renaissance in interest in history. Their undergraduates are flocking to history courses and the history major. An article in the Yale Daily News, the Yale College newspaper, found that the history major is, according to a Yale professor of history there, “thriving.” Contrary to nationwide trends, the history major, which fell in popularity at Yale after the 2008 crisis, has now zoomed back up to be the third most popular major. About 10 percent of this year’s graduating class—129 students—majored in history. Nationally only about 1 percent of students choose history as their major. According to the Yale Daily News reporter, Yale plans to add 11 new history professors in 2019 to meet rising demand.
The same goes at other Ivies. Princeton has also hired new history faculty in response to rising student numbers. At Brown, the director of undergraduate studies in history said that along with more history majors, non-majors are clamoring to take history classes. Brown has had to expand its history course offerings, as enrollments grew in just a year from 1,082 students to 1,385 students.
The Ivy League colleges represent just a tiny slice of the nation’s undergraduates. But students at America’s elite colleges such as the Ivies form an outsized proportion of history majors. Many of those students come from the most affluent American families. No doubt, the majority of Americans look to college as a pathway to a job and economic security. Even in today’s relatively good times, few students can feel certain enough about their future to major in the study of the past. Majoring in history, it seems, has become just another luxury item the anxious majority of undergraduates cannot afford.
While understandable, the sharp national decline in studying the past should worry all of us, not just history professionals. Few history majors—and even fewer of those who take history courses while in college—become historians, but they do move on to become citizens. Knowledge of the past provides young people with a sense of place and a concept of temporal continuity, lessons to apply to the present and future, an interpretive framework and perspective for navigating the choppy global world.
An epidemic of historical amnesia already plagues this country, which has often paid a terrible price and done grave harm to other foreign people and lands due to its ignorance of the past. Orwell could have written that those who study the past control the future. The rich and privileged already own vast swathes of America and can look to a comfortable future. Can we afford their taking control of the past too?