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.
The NYT, New Yorker, and other voices of the intelligentsia have drawn conclusions of various types, most of which were that humanities degrees are seen as not worth the $250,000 prize tag of the average private university tuition. Certainly, articles which repeated that argument didn’t help to attract more students. As both a soon-to-graduate history major and a good data person, I have to start with an important question: Is there a real decline in the history major? The answer is yes, but there is more to it than the -34% graph above would suggest.
Taking the Long View
The number of people getting history degrees changes from year to year. It has dropped by about a third in the last few years, but the variation is more significant if you look at a longer time period. What you see is that a much bigger percentage of degrees were in history back in the heyday humanities of the 1960s. The recession-plagued eighties were the real “drop,” where both men and women switched out history for primarily business degrees. There was a rebound of sorts in the 1990s which also turned downward after the 2008 recession and has continued.
What’s interesting about this is that the story about humanities degrees in general being described as useless–i.e. not great for getting jobs, in other words, non-vocational– covers this whole time period. The same articles were rampant in the early 1980s. My mother, a humanities (art history) professor, complained bitterly between 1975 and 1995 that liberal arts degrees were constantly under attack, when the data suggests here that they were on the rise during at least part of time.
Meanwhile, there are multiple distorting other factors that increase and decrease people pursuing history degrees. Lots more women entered universities after Title IX passed in the early 1970s. Lots more STEM and business-flavored degrees have been created as options for students in these decades. But, there are also many new liberal arts degrees, too, in narrower fields,such as Gender Studies, African American Studies, and Communication Studies, which provide other options for people who might have taken History.
Is There a Safe Major Anyway?
Another way to look at data is across all the degrees. In 2011, NPR published a fascinating interactive graph, meaning you can play around with it :D, of all chosen majors. Contrary to the expectation that history (or liberal arts) has been continuously eclipsed by business and STEM degrees, what you see is that once past the heyday of the 1960s, history has hovered around 2-3%. A change up to 3% and back to 1.8% might seem significant; it is a big swing but a big swing in small numbers. If a department in a single university saw 60 majors drop to 40 or 3 PhD students drop to 2, would that really cause them to cut their staff by a third?
That’s not an exaggeration, either. There are (according to USNWR) 1126 colleges that offer history degrees and 23,221 were awarded in 2020, which is 20.6 per school. Some 692 PhDs in the same time frame, something like 2 per schools which offer PhD programs.
This NPR analysis, interestingly enough, tells you that Computer Science majors are down to 2.5% of degrees from their 4% heyday in the 1980s–oh my God, must mean that Computer Science isn’t deemed valuable any more! Art and Performance has shifted from 4% to a strong 5.8%–obviously, that’s where the jobs are! If you look at other data offered by the National Center for Education Statistics, you can also find that of the people who got PhDs in history between 1996 and 2011, 75% ended up in either a tenure or non-tenured professorial track teaching. And that only 5% of people majoring in physics end up as professors teaching.
There are no absolutely safe degrees to get guaranteed jobs. Accounting and Computer Science majors have to contend with AI (or cheaper labor offshore) replacing the most mundane work just like History majors do. That’s why the statistics seem contradictory.
Enough of this data stuff. The big picture, as I see it, is that there haven’t been that many people majoring in History–a lot fewer since the big ol’ 1960s when all those state universities first opened–and now there are slightly fewer. There has been a clear shift across all majors to more students take business and going into health-related professions. But the small hardy few history students at the core are probably still there. From what I observed among the hundred or so history presentations in their annual conference, they’re sticking with it.
The History major since the dawn of time, or at least since the dawn of Leopold von Ranke, has been filled with people who care deeply about obscure bits of facts, which is only about 1.75% of the student population. History departments will continue to attract their robust 1.75% of people don’t care how much money you can make selling real estate, they still want to read “The Secret History of Chinggis Khan” in the original Mongolian.