History for the Country-Club Set

Were/are you a history major? If so, you probably have experienced something like this:

  • Uncle at Awkward Family Gathering: Erm…so…how’s college?
  • History Major: Fine. Good, I guess.
  • UAFG: Umm….what’s your major?
  • HM: History. I’m taking a seminar in post-colonial Caribbean insurgencies. It’s amazing. I had no idea the US had such an active military presence throughout the region. Have you ever read Fanon? Like, really read it, not just read about it? I hadn’t—well I had sort of heard about it. But now we’re interrogating it as a historical text and I can’t get over how 2018 a lot of it is…
  • UAFG: Oh.
  • ….
  • UAFG: So…
  • UAFG: Are you thinking about law school?

New numbers published by the American Historical Society point to some sad trends in undergraduate history majors. Overall, the number of history majors is declining fast. But there are some weird quirks in the decline.

AHA history trends 1The headline is that fewer and fewer college students are choosing to major in history. The obvious culprit is the job market. Though it might not be true in practice, students and their parents tend to see history and other liberal-arts majors as non-professional degrees. Unlike, say, electrical engineering, history doesn’t have a clear and lucrative job path right out of the graduation gate.

When we poke the numbers a little, though, other trends emerge. For example, the declines among history majors are strongest among Asian-American students, and stronger among women than men.

AHA history trends 2And though the declines are pretty consistent across different types of colleges and universities, they are not universal. At Yale, for example, history has returned to its top spot as the most popular undergraduate major.

What’s going on? First, it’s important to remember that this report focuses on changes in enrollments, not absolute numbers. So, though history may have the largest declines in enrollments, it might still be a very large and very popular major. And while the declines are less steep among some groups, such as African Americans and Native Americans, those groups may have started out from lower enrollment numbers to begin with.

Benjamin Schmidt, author of the AHA report, points to the 2008 economic bust. As he puts it,

the timing of the trend strongly suggests that students have changed their expectations of college majors in the aftermath of the economic shifts of 2008. That the declines have continued among students who entered college well into the economic recovery shows that the shifts are not just a temporary response to a missing job market; instead, there seems to have been a longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students.

Having noted all that, it’s time for a little wild speculation. Why do Yale undergrads flock to the history major? It could be that affluent, privileged, “country-club” students have the luxury to ignore the job market and follow their academic hearts. Or it could be that Yale undergrads have their flinty hearts set on law school and see a history major as a great preparation.

In the end, it serves as yet another reminder that when it comes to American higher education, elite schools like Yale are not usually trend-setters, but rather oddball exceptions. Time and time again, historians and journalists cite a few elite schools as evidence of the state of American higher ed, but as this evidence reminds us, conditions at those elite schools are usually vastly different than they are on Earth.

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Just the Facts, Ma’am

What should good history teaching look like?  As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, conservative critics have warned that the new Advanced Placement US History framework pushes a “consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”  Now, two big historical associations have defended the guidelines.  But those associations are downplaying a central reason why so many conservative critics object to the APUSH framework.

Anyone with ears to hear can’t miss the conservative concern about the tenor of the new APUSH framework.  From the Republican National Convention to the blogosphere to the stuffed-shirt crowd, conservative pundits have teed off on the new guidelines for the advanced history classes.

Time and again, conservative activists such as Larry Krieger have warned that the new guidelines leave out key documents such as the Mayflower Compact and teach children that America’s history is the story of white exploitation, greed, and genocide.

The National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have published letters in defense of the APUSH guidelines.  Mainly, these history groups insist that the new framework is not biased.  As the AHA puts it,

The AHA objects to mischaracterizations of the framework as anti-American, purposefully incomplete, radical, and/or partisan.

The 2012 framework reflects the increased focus among history educators in recent years on teaching students to think historically, rather than emphasizing the memorization of facts, names, and dates.  This emphasis on skills, on habits of mind, helps our students acquire the ability to understand and learn from key events, social changes, and documents, including those which provide the foundations of this nation and its subsequent evolution.  The authors of the framework took seriously the obligation of our schools to create actively thinking and engaged citizens, which included understanding the importance of context, evidence, and chronology to an appreciation of the past.

But there is a minor theme in these defenses.  In the snippet above, the AHA signatories mention that good history education goes beyond the “memorization of facts.”  Similarly, the NCHE insists, “The point of education is not simply to acquire a specific body of information.”

But for many conservative activists and their supporters, the definition of education is precisely the acquisition of knowledge.  And that definition has proven enormously politically powerful over the years.  Please don’t get me wrong—I’m an ardent supporter and sometime member of both the NCHE and the AHA.  But these letters downplay the culture-wars significance of what Paolo Freire called the “banking” model of education.

Not that conservative critics aren’t concerned with the partisan tone of the new guidelines.  That is certainly a key motivating factor for many, I’m sure.  But behind and beyond those worries lies a deeper conservative concern with the definition of education itself.  Not all, certainly, but many conservatives want education in general to remain the transmission of a set of knowledge from teacher to student.

This notion of proper education is so deep and so profound that it often goes unarticulated.  Conservatives—and many allies who wouldn’t call themselves conservative—simply assume that education consists of acquiring knowledge, of memorizing facts.  And this assumption lurks behind many of the big education reforms of our century.  The test-heavy aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act and the new Common Core standards rely on a notion of good education as the transmission of information.  If a student has really learned something, the thinking goes, a test can find out.

For over a century, progressive educators have railed against this powerful assumption about the nature of education.  But for just as long, conservative activists have worked hard to keep this idea of education at the center of public schooling.  As I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives have been able to rally support for this “banking” vision of proper education in every generation.

In the 1930s, for instance, one leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution defined education precisely as a body of ideas that “shall be transmitted by us to our children.”

And in his popular 1949 book And Madly Teach, pundit Mortimer Smith insisted that true education consisted precisely of transmitting the children “the whole heritage of man’s progress through history.”

Similarly, in 1950, an angry letter-writer in the Pasadena Independent insisted on the transmission model as the only proper method of education.  As this writer put it,

Children have the right to learn by being taught all and more than their parents and grandparents learned—one step ahead instead of backward, through each generation.

Perhaps the most articulate advocate for this notion of traditional, transmissive education was California State Superintendent of Public Education Max Rafferty.  In his official jobs and his syndicated newspaper column, Rafferty insisted that the only worthwhile definition of education was the transmission of knowledge from adult to child.  Two fundamental principles of “common sense” in education, Rafferty argued in 1964, were the following:

  • Common sense told us that the schools are built and equipped and staffed largely to pass on from generation to generation the cultural heritage of the race.

  • Common sense took for granted that children could memorize certain meaningful and important things in early life and remember them better in later years than they could things that they had not memorized.

We could list a thousand more examples.  This tradition among conservative activists has remained so powerful that it often goes without saying.  And it lurks behind conservative agitation against each new generation of progressive educational reform.

So when groups such as the AHA and the NCHE defend the new APUSH guidelines, they should spend more time explaining and defending their notion that good education relies on more than just the memorization of facts.  For many parents and teachers, the transmission of those facts is precisely the definition of good education.