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.
In high school and college my classes in American History taught that slavery was just one among many causes of the Civil War, and they taught the Dunning school’s version of Reconstruction.
I doubt that things here in Texas have changed very much in the intervening decades.
In those classes I never heard of Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech.” If we and all who followed had been required to read and analyze this speech then the lies that the South went to war over tariffs and the like would have died away long ago. But those lies are still hard at work in many poorly cultivated minds here in the South.
History classes, American or World, should start with something like this:
Evolution by natural selection governs all life forms and has produced two living varieties of our species: tyranni, who are aggressive and selfish, and democrati, who are timid and altruistic.
Democrati naturally work for the common good—they act rationally. Tyranni naturally work against the common good—they act irrationally.
The Cycle of Human History:
• Tyranni naturally, aggressively push forward to take power.
• Democrati naturally, timidly step back to let them pass.
• Tyranni naturally use that power to indulge their selfish urges.
• Innocents (tyranni and democrati alike) suffer and die unnecessarily.
• A great commotion occurs—from elections to wars.
• Tyranni-outs seize power from tyranni-ins.
• And the cycle renews.
But because Nature has been so bountiful, because democrati greatly outnumber tyranni, and because humans are so resilient and so creative, this brutal process could not stop progress—very costly progress, often needlessly tragic and unevenly distributed, but progress nevertheless—of that there is no doubt. However, we are now dangerously near the end. Nature’s bounty is nearly exhausted. She can no longer heal our self-inflicted wounds, she cannot replenish what we take from her—she cannot forgive our greed.
Without the assistance of Nature, we humans are finally on our own. Our millennia of adolescence are over. It is time to grow up. We can no longer afford to indulge our selfish urges—we cannot afford to just do what comes naturally: act reflexively, act without thinking, play political games instead of doing the hard work of facing and solving the immense problems we have created for ourselves. If we continue to follow the instinctive natures given to us by evolution by natural selection we will go the way of countless other species—we will decline, even become extinct—and it will be sooner rather than later.
Throughout these classes teachers should constantly discuss and analyze historical events to see which were tyranno, and which were democrato. They should determine which historical figures were tyranni and which were democrati.
And in the second semester teachers should lead discussions aimed at how our systems of government and economics should be modified to serve the common good.
Students should be taught that evolution by intellection, a slightly less rigorous form of the scientific method, should be used in designing these new systems.
History is nasty business dominated, even today, by tyranni. History teachers should accept and teach this fact.
It really seems to me that any story we tell about how higher education has changed had better address the huge change in the composition of student bodies…
I don’t disagree with any of our comments. But I would add another element of declining enrollments, namely the bursting of the law school bubble. History was a classic pre-law major or minor, and ever since the bad employment situation for new lawyers has become common public knowledge, interest in history classes has waned. This is largely a variant on the arguments about STEM enrollments–the increasing prevalence of majors leading directly to post-graduation employment. Which is, I would have to say, in view of the economic situation since 2008, entirely understandable.
As a historian, I don’t disagree that historians are not great at examining their own field in the context of the curriculum and student enrollment. But as a sometime administrator, I have found that historians do not have a monopoly on that quality. We all tend to believe that our field is the best — of course, because we chose it! I remember listening to a group of science faculty argue about what was the doyenne of sciences. The biologists contended it was biology, the physicists argued for physics, the chemists said that neither biology nor physics was possible without chemistry, etc. I admire the spirit that underlies that defense, but it also tends to blind us to possible failings. If the students are flocking to our courses, it is because they are wise beyond their years and we are rigorous but fair instructors; if they are not, it is because they are too stupid to recognize the value of what we offer, or because their parents or the media or celebrities or advising staff are misleading them, or because kids these days.
What we should want for students is for them to study what engages them, because it’s the engagement that leads to real learning. The purpose of general education should be to make sure that students have a chance to try out the major approaches to problem solving, in the hopes that something will strike a spark, and not to provide featherbedding for faculty. I don’t want someone who is passionate about history to suffer through another tedious political science course just because the political science department (or the math department or the art department) is anxious about its enrollment. And I don’t want the reverse to happen either. I want students to study history, but I want them to choose it over other subjects, not to suffer through it under compulsion. If that means that I need to reconsider what I offer, then I have to do it.
Yes, faculty are generally not good at this kind of self-aware evaluation. Which is a problem if we’re also claiming that only we can be trusted to govern curricular decisions.
Awhile back my department petitioned the faculty to make the switch from required Western Civ to World History. There was some general concern that this would create coverage problems. We told them we had no intention of trying to cover everything in either variant. One colleague in particular, a senior biologist with some influence in curriculum, kept telling us how deeply meaningful the comprehensive exposure to the Western tradition it received in its college survey course had been. We replied that this was perhaps not a generalizable data point, that surveys are inevitably selective, and that for most students, the mass coverage approach is an offputting waste of time. It was completely unmoved.
More recently, in the early phases of a gen ed overhaul, I bargained away one of History’s two required courses in exchange for a linked, crossdisciplinary, question-oriented component. I would have gladly given both. The local champions of the liberal arts, convinced this could only be a deranged capitulation of sacred turf, tried to get my departmental colleagues to talk sense into me. But of course we’d been having that conversation for years, with varying degrees of consensus. I comically told the liberal artistes that History in particular did nothing at the survey level that couldn’t get done a bunch of other and maybe better ways. Inus conditions. Greater wisdom did prevail in the end and we got both our courses back, with no linking.
Some colleagues wondered if our students could handle the pressure of thinking more than one thought at once. Our school is fairly young, undistinguished and regionally challenged. We bootstrapped ourselves on the cheap as a liberal arts school and struggled, until we could pull together enough professional programs to sustain and grow the operation. This basic dynamic is not clear to all. Most students grin and bear the breadth requirements, or actively and vocally resent being forced to take any class that they will not need for their careers. In general they have had a ridiculously poor and counterproductive exposure to History, which to them has been a series of meaningless textbook coverage slogs through name and date trivia. A few of them liked that about it. Either way they know how to game that system, so they are also suspicious and quickly resentful of any curriculum and pedagogy that disrupts the pattern. Well, and that’s true of many of us.