The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
I’ve discovered that if you live long enough, “history” is something you actually remember. In a sense, it’s you. When I entered high school, Churchill and Eisenhower (only recently deceased) were history, while JFK still seemed current. In my 40s, I was shocked to realize that the Vietnam War had become history. Wait a minute—I lived through that!
Almost 30 years ago, political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced “The End of History,” as he predicted the global triumph of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. That didn’t happen, but we may be seeing the End of History Majors. Over the last 10 years, the number of university students majoring in the discipline has dropped 30 percent—a smaller share of bachelor’s degrees than at any time since 1950, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This could be because the trend is overwhelmingly in favor of STEM courses and social sciences. That’s where the money is, or so we’re told.
But critics blame the profession itself for many of its problems. Like philosophy, literature, and the arts, history was once about the big picture: trends, revolutions, restorations, and innovations. It was about human personality, its failures and achievements, and how certain causes bring about predictable effects. As a publishing genre, history is still big-picture—and it sells. Scholars like David McCullough, “popularizers” like Brian Kilmeade and Bill O’Reilly, even dry analysts like Jared Diamond, leap to the top of the bestseller lists every time they roll out a new title. Some may be more sensational than others, but they all operate from a storytelling blueprint: central theme, fascinating personalities, consequential events.
Academic history has shrunk in its perspective. It focuses on minutia, novelty, and unclaimed niches.
Academic history, in contrast, has shrunk in its perspective. It focuses on minutia, novelty, and unclaimed niches. The drama of war and social change is out of fashion. Instead of cause and effect, the focus is on power and privilege: who has it, how to get it.
An article in The Atlantic in December sounded the warning when the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point announced plans to scrap six liberal-arts majors, including history. Professors and administrators blame the Republican-controlled Legislature for budget cuts. But the school provost admitted that facts were facts: Not enough students were enrolling in these majors to make them worth their cost. “And students are far more cost conscious than they used to be.”
No wonder: With costs above $8,000 per semester for tuition and on-campus housing, young people have to think hard about cost-benefit return. Even though academics and future employers still agree that the liberal arts are essential to a well-rounded graduate, history and the humanities have priced themselves out of the market. And at least some professors have painted themselves into a corner of irrelevance.
To take one small example, the chairman of the history department at UWSP fears important programs will be cut, such as “the spring seminar on the Holocaust and its major’s emphasis on race and ethnicity.” The university offers a history major in Race and Ethnicity, which is certainly part of humanity’s story. But is racism a cause or a symptom? And where does the Holocaust fit in the wider picture of World War II and the decades leading up to it? The school doesn’t appear to offer a course on WWII. UWSP’s proposed spring seminar, by the sound of it, focuses on a symptom rather than a cause—namely, the issue that obsesses us today.
Race and ethnicity, and the consequences thereof, never existed in a vacuum but form part of the mosaic of human evil. Evil shows up in every age and every race—in the Holocaust it exploded. Boiling that horror down to Exhibit A of racism inoculates students from its other lessons, such as the dangers of pride, both national and personal. Flattening history into one perspective also bores them, which is even worse.
As Chesterton said, human depravity is the one Christian doctrine empirically demonstrated. History lives when we see the faults, and the virtues, of our fathers reflected in ourselves. When it becomes prim and judgmental, it dies.