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Past its prime

The history major is dying of self-inflicted wounds

Past its prime

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.


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    Posted: Fri, 01/18/2019 09:47 am

    Was the article cut short? the trailing A seems to say so

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Fri, 01/18/2019 10:35 am

    The entire column is published. The "A" should not have been there and we have removed it.

  • LT Jacobson
    Posted: Fri, 01/18/2019 02:44 pm

    Liberal Arts and Social Sciences have for years been teaching 'there is no truth'. So now perhaps uneducated kids, who aren't necessarily dumb, are believing the history the schools purport to teach isn't really true anyway. Why waste the time?

  • RC
    Posted: Fri, 01/18/2019 05:04 pm

    George Santayana-1905 said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  If we don’t even teach history, how can future generations be other than condemned to make the same mistakes? 

  • One of Many
    Posted: Fri, 01/18/2019 06:26 pm

    A timely article.  My home educated daughter started -- and dropped -- two classes at our local college this week when we discovered that no longer are enduring principles and overarching themes being discussed, but a fast and furious social-media based content... 'Prim and judgmental' describes it pretty well. 

  •  BosLarJazz's picture
    Posted: Fri, 01/18/2019 09:36 pm

    As one who teaches in the arts at the college level I think another underlying trend is we have become a culture of immediate gratification and in my own discipline I see too many who are wanting an "App" to make it easy for them rather than put in the sweat equity to "own" the subject throughly, and they cruise along thinking a degree makes them qualified to do the work. Sadly it doesn't and I try to get that across early on, even in interviewing prospective students. I think the same can be said for many disciplines and subjects and not just the liberal arts. There is little that some students will get themselves "dirty" doing unless it provides some rush or quick result. Even the sciences suffer a bit because most students figure scientists are like high priests of arcane knowledge and have it figured out so they think, "why should I worry?". The sense of wonder that used to drive both the historian and the scientist is harder to fan into flame. Further, as any doctoral student will tell you, there disertation subject choices are encouraged to be obscure and hyper focused - the more obscure, the better. Their very discipline feeds the mindset that some niche on the subject is necessary and the big picture is settled. There is no hack, no app, no shortcut - and it doesn't always result in a great paying job either. I am of the opinion our own desire for comforts and gratification is undermining the things that help build us up.

  • VISTA48
    Posted: Sat, 01/19/2019 05:46 am

    Much of what little history is taught now is revisionist and one-sided. Our Constitution is now an outdated relic, and our founding fathers little more than white supremicist slave owners. Real history has taken a back seat to political agenda, and the country suffers for it.

  • ChetB
    Posted: Mon, 01/21/2019 09:40 am

    As a sophomore English teacher, I see this struggle constantly. Many students do not want to explore the themes of short stories - to ponder and consider questions such as love, contentment, sacrifice, and forgiveness - because many are addicted to convenience and amusement. Many crave the anesthesia of popular culture, social media and instant fulfillment until they define life's ultimate purpose - as well as the value of certain disciplines or knowledge - through those pleasures. Because of this, our society values more and more those with the technological prowess and skills to amuse us more conveniently - even if the "products" they offer grow more and more shallow.
    Of course, God can use such technological knowledge to build His kingdom well, and even deliver Godly "entertainment" that revives and refreshes instead of numbing, but without the Holy Spirit, we will continue to corrupt what He has created, much like Frankenstein corrupted the idea of life into an abomination.
    Ultimately, Christians can best restore a thirst for wisdom by standing for truth, by defending Biblical inerrancy and God's absolute authority against those who render life meaningless hot air through post-modern relativism. No wonder so many people seek amusement and distraction when they're taught that life has no discernible, verifiable meaning.