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Fewer Students Are Majoring in History, But We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Why

... First and foremost, we should not mistake the headline for the entire story. Despite the downturn in undergraduate enrollments, history as a discipline remains vibrant in many respects.

At Yale University, history is the top major among its the class of 2019. At the graduate level, public history — a field focused on communicating the subject to a non-academic audience — is blossoming, with more than 150 Masters programs nationwide. The number of new history PhDs has increased steadily over the past 30 years. And history majors get hired for numerous jobs in numerous sectors, earning good salaries in the process.

Secondly, we have a method for learning why students are making these decisions: ask them. Asking students what they seek from a history degree can give us insight into what can be done to reverse the trends, and indicates, perhaps, that the claim that this is simple economics may not, in fact, be the right diagnosis.

The case of Yale is particularly instructive. When Yale’s history department noticed a downturn in interest, they polled their students about what was missing. The department found that students wanted two specific things from their degree: a logical path and a cohort. In other words, they sought direction and community. They wanted to know what it would look like to move toward a history degree, and on from there. This was not a repudiation of the discipline, its job prospects or its utility. The history degree was not broken; it simply needed to be tweaked to meet students where they were.

The words “direction” and “community” seem appropriate for the post-millenial generation. For a generation come of age in a networked world shaped by social movements and social media, perhaps an interest in camaraderie and social connection should not come as a surprise. Humanities departments have incredible opportunities to foster the connectedness students seek, even while instilling the values of independent research and reflection.

Today’s college students were in middle school when the recession occurred. It affected their parents and older siblings more than it has affected them. The more relevant trend may be that of college- and career-readiness that starts for young people from the time they enter kindergarten. America’s young people have been told that they need to be building their resumes, charting their futures and preparing to succeed from the time they are old enough to read and write. Perhaps this reflects our perceptions of a more chaotic, competitive and uncertain world — socially, geopolitically and economically — in which careful planning is one’s best protection.

If our students seek even more direction and community from history departments, it would not cost universities much to offer it. This has been one early lesson of our Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova. In addition to scholarly programs and online resources, we offer a History Career Day and host a weekly brownbag lunch that fosters discussion around current events through a historical lens. ...

Read entire article at Time Magazine