The humanities keep declining: the case of history

What will happen to the academic humanities?  What do present day trends suggest?

A new report from the American Historical Association gives us some insights, with a focus on one discipline.

To begin with, the report assembles data on majors through how undergraduate degrees from American colleges and universities have changed over the past six years.  It’s pretty comprehensive and well worth careful attention:

degrees changing 2011-2017

On the top right, showing the most impressive growth, are many STEM and allied health fields.  On the bottom left, key humanities fields – religion, area studies, general humanities, English, philosophy – saw drops between 20 and 30%.  these aren’t surprising data, since they represent continuations of trends we’ve been tracking for years.

Leading the pack is history, with a decline of more than 30%.  The report adds more context:

In 2008, the National Center for Education Statistics reported 34,642 majors in history; in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the number was 24,266.

In just one recent year, “[b]etween 2016 and 2017, the number of history majors fell by over 1,500.”

The demographics are also interesting.  History remains a majority male field, perhaps more so than it was recently: “women are now slightly more underrepresented among history majors (40.5 percent vs. 42.5 percent of all degrees, as opposed to about 57 percent of BAs in all fields) than they were in the mid-2000s.”

In terms of race, whites and Asians lead the way to the exits, while blacks and American Indians are less disinterested:

history major changes by demographics

So why is this happening?

The study’s author, Benjamin Schmidt, identifies a series of factors, of which the economic one (students don’t see history as that appealing for job prospects) predominates.  Another reason connects economics with gender, as women, once restricted to the humanities, increasingly have other options for study (Heidi Tworek is cited).  In a Chronicle interview Schmidt adds the thought that history is losing out to interdisciplinary and area studies.  This might be part of a larger pattern:

These more-traditional majors are just becoming less and less central to higher education as time goes on and as newer, cross-disciplinary programs become more accessible at a wider variety of schools.

I would add the collapse of law school enrollment, as history has long been a reliable prelaw major (one IHE commentator agrees with me).

One thought I keep returning to is the possibility that many humanities departments will gradually shift to being service departments, and less as programs with majors.  As Schmidt describes a trajectory for history as

one possible long-term trend: that history departments will become more oriented toward introductory-level courses. Although I am not aware of good data on credit hours for the critical period 2010–12, it seems that the declines in enrollments since then may have been gentler than the drops in majors. Students still take history courses—but more often, apparently, as electives, as requirements for other majors, or as general education requirements.

To sum up: the humanities continue to lose majors in American colleges and universities.  How far will that decline go?  What would a new generation of academic humanities look like as service units?

Previous posts on this topic: Humanities Indicators data from 2017; HI from 2016; AAAS data from 2017.

(via Inside Higher Ed; thanks to many thoughtful comments on Facebook)

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4 Responses to The humanities keep declining: the case of history

  1. Ken Soto says:

    This is sad but hardly unexpected. Anecdotally, many of the people I follow that seem to excel in their fields were history grads, and I’ve heard it’s a very rigorous field which might explain how some grads do well in other fields. I wonder if this is a field that needs to be re-branded so that students who are interested and proficient can see futures that extend far beyond teaching, which is what I assume most high school students think a history degree is used for.

  2. I’ve had conversations with my colleagues about the turn toward service-based roles for humanities programs (especially mine, media studies). I have to say, at least here where teaching is strongly favored over research and professional development (and this attitude is woven into our local culture), there is at least a vocal minority of us who would frankly see little difference in the way we run our programs now (i.e., if we started thinking less often about majors and minors and more often about how we serve the larger student body and curriculum).

    Perhaps this is sort of hand and glove, i.e, that younger faculty hired in the last decade are more comfortable with this idea? I’m not sure that holds up for a larger n of faculty, but it’s certainly not a surprising thought to me.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I can easily see a generational difference, given the major changes shown over the past generation.
      What’s that line about change coming to higher ed, one funeral at a time?

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