They’re changing the history books! They’re restricting books in the libraries! Trying to control the narrative! Distorting the facts!
Same as it ever was.
Historians are up in arms over a wave of current attempts to change what is conveyed as history. But before we get carried away by panic, alarm, and exclamation points, we should revisit the “history” of attempts to quash history. This has happened a lot. It might even be categorized as a “neverending story.”
The New Wave of Old Censorship
At the American Historical Association conference that I attended last week, there were a number of sessions devoted to considerations the wave of recent efforts to restrict how history is taught and ban books. Flyers were left on the chairs urging support for the wording of a resolution to be adopted by the powers-that-be. I’m not quite an academic, but the one thing I’ve learned is that academics are great at sitting in meetings and adopting resolutions.
Historians are all agitated, for good reason. They’re being squeezed between two forces: a highly politicized and polarized atmosphere and a steady decline in the number of students majoring in history. But are students really ditching history? And is this climate of bashing historians even unique? This variation of an intergalactic trash compactor makes a familiar grinding sound; we’ve been here before. If you want to understand what’s going on with History as a discipline, you have take a broader view and look at…(you know it’s coming) the whole history.
This topic arose during a three-day conference of the American Historical Association that kept me wandering through the rabbit warren of the Hilton in downtown San Francisco last week. By the time I was done musing about the concerns of historians–and listening to some fascinating discussions about how AI was affecting teaching, whether women had a Renaissance, why Senegalese soldiers were recruited in World War I, and how to get published–I was full of thoughts. So many thoughts about the purported slump of the history profession that I decided it warranted two separate posts.
In this post, let’s talk about whether the number of history majors is, in fact, in a tailspin.
The Disappearing History Major
There’s been plenty of hand-wringing over the decrease in the number of history students. The decline of students was part of a trend that the Chronicle of Higher Education article had noted back in 2018: “Why Are Students Ditching the History Major?” This study of the change in college degrees awarded over a span in the 2010s showed history at the bottom–a 34% drop in degrees awarded. Science and engineering crested the top, which is why you shouldn’t mention the word STEM to history department administrators unless you want to hear a stream of invective on how they are sucking up all the resources and how they get churn out published articles by rearranging the names on the same data sent to different journals. (Hearing that from my graduate history adviser and knowing how hard my son, the physics major, worked on his articles created some major cognitive dissonance!)
This study from 2018 and its continuing trend prompted other articles by the American History Association which wondered whether the decline has ended, is extended, has reversed, or has backed up and run over itself? The conference held two sessions on the topic, which I confess I didn’t attend because I wanted to learn about the complex use of the word “medieval” in South Asian History and how gender and power was reflected in the Byzantine “apple affair.” But trust me, the AHA is still worried about it.
It may seem a stretch to go from Mesoamerican cooking techniques to Ebenezeer Scrooge and gender disparity, but bear with me. Since I am touring the west coast of Mexico, reading a book called Payback, and pondering the meaning of Christmas stories, this is top of mind. This will be a different kind of vacation post.
We were touring a museum in Nogueras, a small pueblo magico, aka a Mexican historical site, near Manzanillo. There was a thousand-year-old kitchen display showing the many types of foods prepared. Of course, many of the foods that Europe (and the North Americans) built their cuisines around originated from Mesoamerica, which you learn if you take a cooking class in Arizona or summat. Corn, squash, chiles, tomatoes, and I forget which exactly is the six but also coffee and chocolate are all native here, and not in Europe. What the Eurasians call “corn” really means a grain with a seed in it. So the Bible refers to corn, but they meant wheat or barley or farina. Corn i.e. maize (you all know that one) originated here and was exported east with the Great Extraction.