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tags: academia, history majors, history in crisis
George Orwell famously forewarned in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” We shouldn’t be surprised then by some recent, disturbing trends in the study of history.
According to a new analysis by the American Historical Association, the number of students choosing to major in history at the nation’s colleges has plummeted. Undergraduate history majors have fallen by more than a third in less than a decade, declining to their lowest levels since the ’80s. The evidence indicates that the vanishing history major is not a short-term response to the Great Recession’s lousy job market. If anything, the trend is accelerating. The undergraduate history major seems to be on the way out.
Yes, a small number of colleges are bucking the trend, but even that bit of positive news for those who think the study of history matters should cause alarm. More on those schools below.
Of all college majors since the financial crash of 2008, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that none has fallen faster than history, which has experienced the steepest declines by far in student concentrators. In 2008, there were 34,642 majors in history; by 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the number had fallen to 24,266. The drop off in the study of history comes despite the rise in college enrollment in recent years.
“Of all the fields I’ve looked at, history has fallen more than any other in the last six years,” says Benjamin M. Schmidt, a history professor at Northeastern University who analyzed the data. Schmidt has tracked numbers for students majoring in history over several years and finds that improving overall job prospects for the nation’s liberal arts graduates have not slowed the downward trend. If anything, it is getting worse. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, some 1,500 fewer American undergraduates chose to major in history. The drop-off has continued even among students who entered college long after the economic recovery began.
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