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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