February 24, 2024

Are College Degrees in History Fast Becoming History?

Author: David Hubler
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Start a history degree at American Public University.

By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Learning Tips

“Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.” Herodotus, 484 BC – 425 BC

There is an ongoing controversy in academia about whether history as a college major is indeed vanishing. In fact, there is a good deal of evidence to show that the U.S. is suffering from historical illiteracy.

An American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) survey in 2016 found that “a majority of the four-year college graduates who answered a multiple-choice survey were unable to identify the method for amending the Constitution or the process for presidential impeachment. Nearly half failed to identify the correct term lengths for the houses of Congress. Ten percent thought that Judith Sheindlin — “Judge Judy” — is on the Supreme Court.”

Why is there an apparent turn away from the study of history when the need to correct this “historical illiteracy” appears so great?

Dr. Richard Hines, program director for the APU History Department, suggests that history as a major has fallen out of favor with students because “we as educators direct them to microcosmic examinations of the past. As a result, historians become experts on small areas of history.”

Such microcosmic specialization leads to “hiring new faculty based on ever-narrowing fields, which has resulted in many programs losing their identity,” Hines adds.

Some Programs Lose their Identity and Often Lose Vital Funding

Not only do some college history programs lose their identity by hiring specialists, they often lose vital funding while facing stiff competition for scarce dollars from programs that barely registered on campus a few short years ago.

Social scientist and historian Paul B. Sturtevant, writing in Perspectives on History in 2017, has one answer: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) majors have grown in importance to college students.

Sturtevant states, “Over the past 20 years, warnings from a variety of sources — from career counselors to administrators to government officials — have convinced many prospective college students (and their parents) that the only safe path to a well-paying job is through a STEM major.”

Similarly, Benjamin M. Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, says undergraduate majors have been shifting away from the humanities since the Great Recession of 2008-09.

“The drops have been especially heavy since 2011–12,” Schmidt said. “Of all the fields I’ve looked at, history has fallen more than any other in the last six years.”

Steep Decline in Bachelor’s Degrees in History Continued in Mid-Decade

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in history in 2014 fell for the third time in four years, from 34,360 to 31,233. That was a 9.1 percent decline from the previous year. As Sturtevant reported in the same 2017 article in Perspectives on History, “this steep decline has continued, with only 28,157 history majors graduating in 2015 (a decline of 9.8 percent from 2014).”

Is it any wonder then why the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced plans in March 2018 to eliminate 13 programs, mostly in liberal arts? Among the programs scheduled for elimination are art, French, geography, geoscience and German.

Washington Post columnist Max Boot recently noted another disturbing trend. “Today, fewer than 2 percent of male undergraduates and fewer than 1 percent of females major in history,” he noted, “compared with more than 6 percent and nearly 5 percent, respectively, in the late 1960s.”

Despite Decline in Some Students, Some History Departments Have Grown

Even if the statistics concerning history majors are correct, some “history departments are often among the largest on campus,” Vanderbilt University’s History Department reported.

At some of the nation’s leading universities and liberal arts colleges, Vanderbilt notes, “the history major has remained popular despite increasing vocational pressures for students to concentrate on job training.”

A Business Insider survey of undergraduate programs at the eight Ivy League schools found that history ranked in the top three majors at Yale and Dartmouth. It continues to be among the top declared majors at Brown, Princeton and Columbia, The New Yorker reported.

The NCES database* listed 1,275 U.S. colleges and universities that offered an undergraduate degree in history in the 2015-16 academic year. Overall, APUS ranked number 37 and number five among schools that offer a history program online.

Vanderbilt offers four reasons why this subject remains a popular major:

  • It provides a classic mode of learning. By studying the past, undergraduate majors learn to think with rigor, write with clarity and analyze and interpret complex events.
  • It is popular and interesting. It offers a boundless variety for selecting favorite topics and pursuing personal interests.
  • Historical knowledge is important; historical ignorance is dangerous. Historical studies deal with real people and events, not abstractions.
  • Leaders in American business, government and nonprofits want graduates who can read efficiently, write clearly, reason logically and analyze problems against a background of broad social information. The world economy increasingly will reward generalist skills of literacy and numeracy over training in particular job categories.

Attacks on Classical Liberal Arts Programs Is Not a New Phenomenon

Dr. Hines disputes the theory that the decline in history majors is a relatively recent phenomenon. He says ever since the U.S. switched from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial economy, there have been periodic movements away from a classical liberal arts education and toward a more practical, career-related curriculum.

“The same kind of thing is going on now, attacking the humanities,” he said.

Dr. Hines says we’re now the fourth industrial revolution, citing artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics as potential rivals for students’ interests.

“It’s just started,” he adds, “and we’re going to see in the next 25 years probably some major impacts as a result.”

But businesses are “going to need somebody who can think. They’re going to need those so-called ‘soft skills,’” Hines insists.

Judging by the 2016 ACTA survey, the sooner students acquire those skills through a well-rounded education, the better.

*Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) IPEDS database. Retrieved February 2019, using CIP code 54.0101 (History/General). Includes 2017 preliminary data.

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