The End of History (as we know it) Part One

Viewing history close-up is problematic; Image from

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!)

2018 data from

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.

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Summer Road Trip: Puzzlin’ Evidence

I have been thinking about the intersection of history, storytelling, and science, ever since my visit to the Sasquatch Outpost in Bailey, Colorado, a small but enthusiastically curated museum dedicated to information about Colorado sightings of Bigfoot. I could not help but compare it to two other recent visits here, one to the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, Colorado and the US Olympic & Paralympic Archives in Colorado Springs.

What I grasped is that history, science, and storytelling all use parts that are native to each other. Scientists start with evidence, but must construct a narrative that uses deductive reasoning to explain results. This happens whether they are aiming particle beams at cuprite samples or reconstructing fossil skeletons from a riverbed. They need to tell a clear story. Historians also need to fill in the details on the timeline, starting with whatever sources (evidence) exist from the time period. Deductive reasoning and inferences play a part.

Storytelling, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. If it has a little deductive reasoning–a little science behind it–the story might might have more power. Think about the explanation of constellations, for example. Humans are also naturally adept at “What If…? Tales don’t need evidence, although it helps if the story resembles the familiar. Imagination, however, should not let us replace evidence with anecdote. There are different kinds of evidence. Brief examples from my visits should help clarify the roles played. I can’t quite figure out the Venn diagram, but perhaps the following might help:

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Wasn’t It Only Yesterday?

The now nearly invisible Harry Potter. Photo from Warner Bros.

I recently came across a headline that gave me the frowns. It was a week or so ago, but in the midst of my “why don’t people get their history correct” rant, Part One. So consider this Part Two. The caption was:

Why so much Obama-era pop culture feels so cringe now: How Hamilton, Parks and Recreation, and Harry Potter lost cultural cachet.

Constance Grady,

Much of this is a calculated irritant. The headline was recommended by a browser algorithm that is the technological equivalent of supermarket tabloid stands. It’s designed to be a wet fish slap. Obama somehow seems to share in the blame. At least in the supermarket, you can also contemplate the Snickers bars. On the Internet, it’s just you and this headline and the other stories cum ads about the “Last Bed/Pizza-Kit/Migraine Remedy You’ll Every Buy.”

It’s clickbait. It’s written by people whose profession is to tell you what to think and how to live. Those folks in the ancient days were the rule-making priests, then the culture-stamping bosses; now they are self-appointed influencers. (I was going to add barely-known bloggers, but then I’m a barely-known blogger, so never mind).

We all shouldn’t care so much. And yet…so many questions spring to mind.

Who decided Hamilton, Harry Potter, and Parks and Rec are completely out of favor? Who decided these were Popular in the first place? How is Harry Potter even “Obama-era,” when all of the book were published before Obama? I dispute the premise, and I dispute the facts. And it’s worth spending a few minutes on this because we should not stir together opinions about politics, art, and facts as if they are interchangeable. When we do that, it becomes much easier to dismiss videos from January 6th as “that’s your opinion.”

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