I have had a few interesting conversations with colleagues online about recent news of falling enrollments in college history courses nationwide, conversations which broadly echo similar discussions among faculty in other disciplines about the same phenomenon in their classes.
Speaking generally, two things tend to strike me about these recurrent discussions. The first is that many faculty make extremely confident assertions about the underlying causes of shifting enrollments that are (at best) based on intuitions, and moreover, these causal theories tend to be bleakly monocausal. Meaning that many faculty fixate on a single factor that they believe is principally responsible for a decline and dig in hard.
The second is that the vast majority of these causal assertions are focused on something well beyond the power of individual history professors or even departments of history (or associations of historians!) to remedy.
Just to review a range of some of the theories I’ve encountered over the last two years of discussion, including recently:
a) It’s a result of parental and social pressure for utility and direct application to viable careers.
b) It’s a result of admitting too many students who are interested in STEM disciplines. (Which is sometimes just relocating the agency of point #a.)
c) It’s a result of badly designed general education requirements that give students too much latitude and don’t compel them to take more history or humanities.
d) It’s a result of too many AP classes in high school, which gives students the idea that they’ve done all the history they might need.
e) It’s a result of bad or malicious advising by colleagues in other departments or in administration who are telling students to take other subjects.
At best, if these are offered as explanations which are meant to catalyze direct opposition to this hypothesized cause, they lead professors far away from their own courses, their own pedagogy, their own department, their own scholarship, all of which are vastly easier to directly affect and change. At worst, these are forms of resignation and helplessness, of not going gentle into that good night.
It might not be completely useless to engage in public argument about why history actually is useful in professional life or in the everyday lives of citizens. Or to argue against the notion that we measure subjects in higher education according to their immediate vocational payoffs. All faculty at liberal-arts institutions should be contributing to making that kind of case to the widest possible publics. However, argument in the general public sphere about these thoughts is less immediately productive in engaging enrollments than similar arguments made to actual students already matriculating at the home institutions of historians. Those students are knowable and are available for immediate consultation and dialogue. What they think about history or other humanities may not be what a far more abstract public thinks. They may be seeking very particular kinds of imagined utility which a historian could offer, or simply need to have some ideas about how to narrate the application of historical inquiry to other spheres and activities.
Complaining about requirements, about advising, or about AP classes is similarly distracting. Changing general-education requirements is a particularly dangerous answer to an enrollment problem for a variety of reasons. Compelling students to take a course they not only do not want to take but actively oppose taking is very likely to contribute to even greater alienation from the subject matter and the discipline overall, unless the subject matter and the pedagogy are of such overwhelming value that they singlehandedly reverse the initial negative perception. Moreover, there’s a game-theoretic problem with using requirements as an instrumental answer to enrollment shifts, which is that in a faculty organized around departments, this leads to every department with declining enrollments demanding new requirements specifically tailored to enrollment capture, which in turn forces departments which are the beneficiaries of stronger enrollment trends to weaponize their own participation in curricular governance and defend against a structure of requirements that takes students away from them. Like it or not–and I think we ought to like it–student agency is an important part of most of higher education, and indispensible in liberal-arts curricula especially. The only coherent alternative to a curriculum predicated on student choice is either an intellectually coherent and philosophically particular approach like that of St. John’s College or a core curriculum that is not departmentally based but is instead designed and taught outside of a departmental framework. Asking for new requirements is a way to avoid self-examination.
That’s generally the problem I have with these kinds of explanations. They take us away from what we can meaningfully implement through our own labor, but also they allow us to defer introspection and self-examination. If current students find the traditional sequencing of many college history majors to be uncompelling, whether that’s because of having taken AP courses or not finding the typical geographic and temporal structures compelling or useful, there is nothing about that sequence which is sacred or necessary. History is not chemistry: one does not have to learn to use Avogadro’s number and basic laboratory techniques in order to progress further in the subject. Maybe courses that are thematic which are taught across broad ranges of time and space are more appealing. Maybe courses that connect understanding history to contemporary life or issues in explicit ways are more appealing. Maybe courses that emphasize research methods and digital technologies are more appealing. Maybe none of the above. But those should be the only things that historians in higher education are concerned with when they worry about enrollments: what are we doing that’s not working for our actually-existing students? Could we or should we do other things? If we refuse to do other things because we believe that what we have been doing is necessary, what is it that we have been doing that’s necessary, and why is it important to defend regardless?
Historians should be (but generally aren’t) especially good at thinking in this way because of our own methodological know-how and epistemological leanings. If it turns out that what we are inclined to treat as natural and necessary in our current curricular structures and offerings is in fact mutable and contingent simply by comparison with past historical curricula, then when is it exactly that we became convinced of the necessity of those practices? And what was the cause of our certainty? If it turns out that what we defend as principle is in fact just a defense of the immediate self-interest of presently-laboring historians, then our discipline should itself help us gain some necessary distance and perspective about our interests.
Especially if it turns out that our perception of our interests is in fact harming our actual self-interest in remaining a viable part of a liberal-arts education. Perhaps the first, best way historians could demonstrate the usefulness of our modes of inquiry is by using them to understand our present circumstances better and imagine our possible futures more clearly. Even if we want to insist that lower enrollments should not by themselves resolve questions about the allocation of resources within academia (a position I agree with), we might find that there are new ways to articulate and explain that view which are more persuasive in the present rather than simply invoked as an invented tradition.