The strange decline of history

I’ve written before about the long, slow decline of history as a profession, and what historians might do to reverse the trend. I graduate from Yale University with a degree in history in 1995. At that time, graduates perceived that we were launching into a difficult job market. We also believed that history was a foundational discipline in the humanities, and that the job market should get better. We had no idea what was coming.

My conversations with my colleagues in the humanities are often tinged with bitterness, as colleagues wonder: “how did the humanities become so utterly devalued.” These colleagues share a sense that the world has changed and things that mattered in another era –being well-read, the value of a liberal education, and research skills– have been tossed aside. These conversations often end with my colleagues condemning the neoliberal model in education, the reliance on student credit hours (SCH) in university budgeting, and the lack of respect that others have for the profession. But there are few innovative solutions offered. The conversations seem to end with people wondering how historians can help the provost to see the value of the humanities.

The shared theme in these discussions is that the problem is not caused by us; we just need to make others understand why the field is important. This is a dispiriting approach. Even the title of some of AHA’s data reports have a whiff of despair: “History Is Not a Useless Major: Fighting Myths with Data.” If you need convincing, please take a look at the titles of these reports highlighted by the American Historical Association.

I’ve not only become tired of this conversation, but also convinced that many of our fields’ failings are self-inflicted wounds. I’m not the only one to think this. I want to recommend Hal Brand and Francis Gavin’s article, “The historical profession is committing slow motion suicide.” In the United States, we need to ensure that our foreign affairs are shaped by a knowledge of diplomatic and military history, as well as grand strategy, which ties the field to key global issues. Yet as Brand and Gavin note these aren’t areas that most departments prioritize, even though these classes often still draw students well.

The field isn’t rushing to embrace online curriculum, and its aversion to technology is a long-standing problem. Historians perhaps even were slower than other fields to adopt email. An April 2006 report by Robert Townsend in Perspectives found that while “many faculty in the field report that e-mail is a mixed blessing as a means of staying in contact with students, the vast majority in the discipline now do so, as 82.4 percent said they use e-mail to stay in touch with their students.” Again, that was in 2006.

When I look at syllabi in Brazilian history shared online, most of them could have been written in the 1980s, in terms of their format, assignments, and content. How could so much time have passed, and so little have changed in the field pedagogically? Sometimes I feel that the focus on how others perceive history has left the entire field paralyzed. I don’t see historians leading the move to Universal Design in their courses, or the Negotiated Syllabus. But to be clear I also don’t feel that any of these weaknesses themselves account for the decline of history.

Yes, we as historians can do better. But that’s not the base issue. And the examples above omit the amazing work and trends that I see being done in the field, particularly by some of my junior colleagues. There is a larger trend apart from these failings.

History is fundamental. One only has to look at the political discourse in the United States over the last several years -issues of race, colonialism and imperialism- to understand why. Even in the world of finance, if you don’t understand Argentina’s financial history over the last few decades, will you make good assumptions when investing there or buying financial instruments? And how can one make informed decisions about foreign policy as a citizen without some understanding of history?

I recently received an email asking me to enroll in the American Historical Association. My membership has lapsed. The opening line had words to the effect “I know that our historical profession now is not what it was ten years ago. . .” What struck me in that sentence was the phrase “the last ten years.” It assumed that we all had a common understanding of what had happened in the last ten years, and that the change had been dramatic. Or even catastrophic.

I’ve spent a quarter century in an International and Global Studies department, and am more of a social scientist now. So I feel that I’ve escaped much of this sad saga, apart from hallway conversations. But when I read this email I wondered- what has happened with the discipline in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom? Is the decline of history a uniquely U.S. phenomenon, or part of a global trend? Would anyone in other countries start such an email with the words (as best as I can recall), “the history profession is not what it was ten years ago?” And if this trend is mainly in the United States, why is that? For all of our field’s failings, this has been a long and dangerous decline, which leaves me heartsick.

Shawn Smallman

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