The decline of historical thinking
Eric Alterman, The Nation’s media columnist, a cuny distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a history Ph.D./The New Yorker
Having ignored questions of economic inequality for decades, economists and other scholars have recently discovered a panoply of effects that go well beyond the fact that some people have too much money and many don’t have enough. Inequality affects our physical and mental health, our ability to get along with one another and to make our voices heard and our political system accountable, and, of course, the futures that we can offer our children. Lately, I’ve noticed a feature of economic inequality that has not received the attention it deserves. I call it “intellectual inequality.”
I do not refer to the obvious and ineluctable fact that some people are smarter than others but, rather, to the fact that some people have the resources to try to understand our society while most do not. Late last year, Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, published a study demonstrating that, for the past decade, history has been declining more rapidly than any other major, even as more and more students attend college. With slightly more than twenty-four thousand current history majors, it accounts for between one and two per cent of bachelor’s degrees, a drop of about a third since 2011. The decline can be found in almost all ethnic and racial groups, and among both men and women. Geographically, it is most pronounced in the Midwest, but it is present virtually everywhere.
There’s a catch, however. It’s boom time for history at Yale, where it is the third most popular major, and at other élite schools, including Brown, Princeton, and Columbia, where it continues to be among the top declared majors. The Yale history department intends to hire more than a half-dozen faculty members this year alone. Meanwhile, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, Bernie L.
Patterson, recently proposed that the school’s history major be eliminated, and that at least one member of its tenured faculty be dismissed. Of course, everything gets more complicated when you look at the fine print. Lee L. Willis, the chair of the history department, told me that the chancellor’s proposal is a budget-cutting measure in response to the steadily declining number of declared majors, but it’s really about the need to reduce the faculty from fourteen to ten, and this means getting rid of at least one tenured member. To do that, it’s necessary to disband the department. (A spokesperson for the university said that “UW-Stevens Point is exploring every option to avoid laying off faculty and staff members.”) The remaining professors will be placed in new departments that combine history with other topics.Stevens Point, in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, educates many first-generation college students, and, in the past, the history department has focussed on training teachers. Willis pointed out that, after Scott Walker, the former governor, led an assault on the state’s teachers’ unions, gutting benefits and driving around ten per cent of public-school teachers out of the profession, a teaching career understandably looks considerably less attractive to students.The steep decline in history graduates is most visible beginning in 2011 and 2012. Evidently, after the 2008 financial crisis, students (and their parents) felt a need to pick a major in a field that might place them on a secure career path. Almost all of the majors that have seen growth since 2011, Schmidt noted in a previous study, are in the stem disciplines, and include nursing, engineering, computer science, and biology. (A recent Times story noted that the number of computer-science majors more than doubled between 2013 and 2017.) “M.I.T. and Stanford are making a big push in the sciences,” Alan Mikhail, the chair of the history department at Yale, told me. Other universities have tended to emulate them, no doubt because that’s what excites the big funders these days—and with their money comes the prestige that gives a university its national reputation. The reason that students at Yale and places like it can “afford” to major in history is that they have the luxury of seeing college as a chance to learn about the world beyond the confines of their home towns, and to try to understand where they might fit in. That’s what history does best. “History instills a sense of citizenship, and reminds you of questions to ask, especially about evidence,” Willis told me. In a follow-up e-mail after our conversation, Mikhail wrote, “A study of the past shows us that the only way to understand the present is to embrace the messiness of politics, culture, and economics.