The Decline of Historical Thinking

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. “I am hearing a lot, ‘What kind of a job am I going to get with this? My parents made me switch,’ ” Willis said. “There is a lot of pressure on this particular generation.” But he also noted a recent rise in declared history majors this past semester, from seventy-six to a hundred and twenty. “This perception of a one-way trend and we’ll whittle down to nothing is not what I am seeing,” he said.

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. David Blight, a professor of history at Yale and the director of its Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, tells a similar story when it comes to funding. In a recent meeting with a school administrator, he was told that individual funders were all looking to fund stemprograms—and, Blight said, “It’s the funders that drive things.”

Nonetheless, the history major continues to thrive at Yale, in part because it’s a great department with a number of nationally known stars, all of whom are expected to teach at an undergraduate level, and in part because it is Yale, where even a liberal-arts degree opens almost all professional doors. As Mikhail said, “The very real economic pressure students feel today is lessened at Yale. Need-blind admissions make a big difference, together with the sense that a Yale degree in anything will get them the job they want, even at places like Goldman or medical school.” The school’s public-relations department recently made a promotional video about Fernando Rojas, the son of Mexican immigrants, who made national news a few years ago when he was admitted to all eight Ivy League schools. Rojas, who found an intellectual home at Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, intends to pursue a Ph.D. in history.

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. It locates us and helps us understand how we got here and why things are the way they are. “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 to 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. There are never easy answers to pressing questions about the world and public life.” Bruce Springsteen famously developed a profound political consciousness after happening upon Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager’s “A Pocket History of the United States,” first published in 1942. In his recent Broadway show, Springsteen explained, “I wanted to know the whole American story. . . . I felt like I needed to understand as much of it as I could in order to understand myself.”

Donald Trump is the king not only of lies but also of ahistorical assertions. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the thousands of falsehoods that Trump has told as President, but one recent shocker was when he insisted, ignoring everything we know about the Soviet Union’s lawless behavior, that “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.” (The usually Trump-friendly Wall Street Journal editorial page claimed, “We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”) Republicans, for the past few decades, have depended on Americans’ inability to make sense of history in judging their policies. How else to explain the fact that, under Trump, they have succeeded in turning legal immigration into the excuse for all the country’s ills, when any clear historical analysis would demonstrate that it has been the fount of the lion’s share of America’s innovation, creativity, and economic production?

“Yes, we have a responsibility to train for the world of employment, but are we educating for life, and without historical knowledge you are not ready for life,” Blight told me. As our political discourse is increasingly dominated by sources who care nothing for truth or credibility, we come closer and closer to the situation that Walter Lippmann warned about a century ago, in his seminal “Liberty and the News.” “Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo . . . can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” he wrote. A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos. As he has proved ever since he rode to political prominence on the lie of Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump is all three. And, without more history majors, we are doomed to repeat him.

  • Eric Alterman is The Nation’s media columnist, a cuny distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a history Ph.D.

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