The Decline of History Majors

Some folks have brought this to my attention:

Since 2008, the number of students majoring in history in U.S. universities has dropped 30 percent, and history now accounts for a smaller share of all U.S. bachelor’s degrees than at any time since 1950.

As Reynolds notes, History is a paradigm case of “get woke, go broke.”  History, more than any other Liberal Art, is now nothing more than a SocJus mad lib: “___ oppressed ____ through ___, ____. and ____.”  The rest is just details, and ten minutes Wiki-surfing with the syllabus in hand will give you those.

I’d been planning to retire for a long time anyway, but the final straw came a few years ago when an engineer buddy of mine asked to take my midterm, just to see if things were as bad as I claimed.  I said sure, and gave him the exact same rules as the students: Open note (meaning, access to the class website), 60 minutes.  Now, keep in mind that this is a guy who’s so left-brained he can’t spell a word the same way twice.  The last history class he took was the one we took together back in high school, decades ago, when the Soviet Union was still very much a going concern.

He got a B-.  “I probably could’ve done better,” he admitted, “but Monday Night Football was on.”

It’s no use to say “give harder exams” — universities are businesses and the customer is always right.  A professor with a rep as a hard grader won’t be a professor for too long, because students will simply avoid him…. and if you assign him to teach the required Intro classes (because he’s got tenure, so he has to teach something), students will simply switch majors.  Thus everyone gets As, and since this is true in every other Liberal Art (for the same reasons), the choice of major for most students comes down to a mix of “what are you going to do with that?” and “the classroom experience.”

History is the easiest imaginable A — I’m really not kidding when I say any one of you, right now, could graduate summa from any History department in the land without breaking a sweat — but it never shows up in job requirements.  Plus the classroom experience is the pits.  “Business” isn’t the most popular major in America because it’s practical (though it’s more practical than History).  It’s popular because the profs in the business school kinda sorta look like normal humans.  Even now students still have to spend a little bit of time in the classroom.  Who would you rather be locked in with, a guy who looks like he might know how a clothes iron works, or a blue-haired, face-shrapneled, sleeve-tattooed, unshaven androgynous blob that changes xzhyr pronouns every few weeks?

And all that is before you get to the subject matter itself.  Reynolds notes that History majors are down most in the elite schools.  This is because profs at elite schools get to teach what they want to teach, and what they want to teach is their current research in their micro-calibrated sub-sub-sub specialty.  In case you’re not familiar with academia’s arcana, one doesn’t get a doctorate in “History.”  That’s what it says on the sheepskin, but to get the sheepskin you have to write a dissertation, which is a substantial piece of original research.  Since we’re pretty clear on the big questions — your “what caused the Civil War?”-type stuff — that only leaves the little ones.  So you get dissertations on sheep-shearing techniques in the reign of Henry VII or something…. but, of course, this is academia, where everything’s uber-politicized, so you get dissertations on the Marxist interpretation of sheep-shearing techniques in the reign of Henry VII.  And because that shit gets grant money (don’t ask me how; God alone knows) and because grant money is the department’s lifeblood, said professor is going to teach HIST 302: Sheep-shearing Techniques in the Reign of Henry VII: A Marxist Approach.

Why on earth would anyone major in that?

Alas, that’s not a rhetorical question.  There’s a bipartite answer: Either you really love sheep-shearing, or you really love Marxism.  There are always some few dorks who are really into History’s obscurities (and they’re actually the worst kids to have in class, I’d take fifty hopelessly bored sorority girls over one enthusiast, but that’s a rant for another day).  But there are always several more dorks who are really into protesting stuff, and that’s where the History major really shines.  These snowflakes, it’s safe to say, are Liberal Arts majors, because only Liberal Arts majors would be dumb enough to go to Georgia Tech, where they really do mean tech, and demand an end to quizzes, homework, studying, and class attendance.  The History major is perfect for these people… or it would be, if there weren’t a dozen other majors — Psych, Soash, Anthro, Elementary Ed, American Studies (a real thing, God help us), etc. — that actually give you class credit for protesting shit.  So History’s screwed there, too.

And good riddance, as far as I’m concerned.  Academia is broken beyond all hope of repair.  Keeping traditional-sounding majors around only helps maintain the fiction that a college “education” is anything more than a six-year SJW sleepaway camp.  The faster Angry Studies becomes a real, honest-to-God major, the faster we can start tearing the whole place down and salting the earth where it stood.  College is the biggest scam ever pulled on the American public — if a Bernie Madoff type did 1/1000th the damage to Wall Street that your average college dean does to Main Street, they’d draw and quarter him in Times Square and broadcast the carnage instead of the Super Bowl.  For God’s sake, do not go to college, do not let your kids go to college, don’t let your friends, or friends’ kids, or friends’ kids’ pets go to college.

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14 thoughts on “The Decline of History Majors

  1. Ganderson

    My kids went to college to play lacrosse. I like college lacrosse. I’m not wild about the 600,000 + dollars I spent to have the three of them play, but there you are. As for their educations, they would have been better off spending 4 years in the library.

    I am part of the institution that Twin Cities radio pundit Joe Soucheray calls “the failed academy”, although in the high school division. Most of what you say rings very true. I’d argue, too that I’m better equipped to teach the survey courses than most professors, or rather Indeed, and I’m sure I’ll get some pushback here, I think my AP level kids learn more from me than they would in a college survey.

    That said there is enormous pressure on me to pass kids- I was reprimanded earlier this year for having grades that were too low. Nothing really difficult in my lower level classes, but I’m finding kids less and les willing to read, to do reasearch (and not about sheep shearing in medieval England, but about the Battle of Antietam). And, Prov Sev, I don’t know if you find this, but kids are helpless without their phones.

    Part of the issue , I think, is that new teachers coming have all been taught by the sleeve tattooed people with the fishing tackle, so the contrast between the younger teachers and the old farts like me is stark. In my class the kids have to read and write- in others they do “group work”- in other words sit around and chat with heir pals. Learning is optional.

    Or maybe I’m just an old fart.

    1. Severian

      Your AP kids absolutely learn more from you than from a college survey. Intro surveys are 100% poz. Do you know how many times I’ve had to read the Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano? That’s the one book they assign in first half US survey, pretty much everywhere. You could get out of that class barely knowing there was an American Revolution, but you’ll know all about the horrors of the slave trade (and the We Wuz Kangz! “African” cultures from which the slaves were supposedly ripped). Ditto second half US survey, which is either The Grapes of Wrath (if the prof is old school) or, God help us, Nickel and Dimed. Again, you’d only have the foggiest notion what the Depression was, but you’d sure know about all those angelic Socialists who ended it by teaming up with The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior to defeat Reagan and the Nazis.

      High school history, done right, is all most people ever need — it’s the basic facts, and the connections between the basic facts, and a look at the way to make those connections. College history is different. It’s supposed to be specialized… just not in the way it currently is. Instead of “A Marxian Analysis of Medieval Sheep-Shearing,” it should be “The Development of International Law” or something like that. It’s supposed to be for people who need rigorous training in research, summary, and analysis. Lawyers were once overwhelmingly History majors; the whole “pre-law” major was created because academic History got so fucking pozzed back in the 1990s.

      And yes, they’re absolutely helpless without their phones. I used to mess with the screen resolution on my presentations, exams, etc., just to break them of the phone habit. An increasing number of them had no idea things even could be printed out, much less how to do it.

      1. Ganderson

        I’ve been moved out of AP, mostly because AP has gone more toward the black armband school of US History (hat tip to John Derbyshire) and multiculturegenderfair) I also used to teach the course online, and when I taught the course, the units were pre-done for me, but I could make some changes. The changes I could make were more and more limited as time went on. I used to have as one of my standing jokes that nowadays when modern history teachers teach about World War II it’s the Holocaust, Japanese internment , the zoot suit riots, and the atomic bomb. Well when I checked in on the World War II unit, it was exactly that. No mention of Guadalcanal, D-Day or God forbid they mention Operation Market Garden. I let the kids know in the discussion threads how I felt about that .

  2. Recusant

    Well let’s give it up for the Gentleman Amateur.

    Until very recently, in historical terms, they were the ones doing all the research. And pretty damn good research it was to. This applies across the board, even in the sciences, in fact, especially in the sciences. The vast science research and academic world that has metastasised since WWII has produced diddly in comparison to a few chaps in their study/garden shed/factory.

    1. Severian

      I’ve said many times that the Gentleman Amateur is the way to go, even now. I strongly recommend “pop history,” especially “pop biography,” as a way of getting a decent handle on a historical period. You can read all the academic bafflegab you want about the Civil War, for instance, even by titans in the field, and you won’t learn as much about what the Civil War was really like for the guys who fought it than you will from the works of Brent Nosworthy, who I doubt has ever seen the inside of a seminar room. You’ve got to be a bit careful — “journalists” love writing pop histories that are as fake and ax-grinding as their “journalism” — but even there you can usually pick out the facts from the poz.

      Unless you really need the work of a true specialist on a highly specialized topic, your best bet is a guy who calls himself an “independent researcher.” That usually means he got blackballed from a doctoral program for wanting to write the truth about stuff people actually care about. The work of foreigners, even academics, also seems to be much better about American topics — they aren’t 100% au courant with the American catechism, so they don’t interrupt their narratives every five pages to sing hosannas to Barack Obama or whomever.

  3. Al from da Nort

    Yeah, my condolences, that situation sucks. I still feffin love history as an amateur. But FWIW, there IS a maybe Irish Monastery type corner of the discipline that still seems rigorous and serious. I speak (and may have spoken about this before) of the US Military. Military History (mostly but not exclusively) is still taken seriously there. It’s an entirely other world from that you describe.

    Every member of the US Military is required to take PME (professional military education) for promotion, particularly officers. Officers are required to spend ~8 months, 8 hours/day, 5 days/week + 2 -3 hours/day of homework to complete ______Command & Staff School and some years later ~ 10 months in ____ War College at the same pace. Here is an index to the ______ Chief of Staff’s Recommended Professional Reading List for all services:

    I have read a number of these books and can attest that some of them, particularly as related to ground forces are enduring classics by renowned authors in the field. You will note that many of them are critical and none of them are puff pieces. I have to say that the Army’s list is the most rigorous by far.

    1. Severian

      Since war is the ultimate right-answer discipline, I suspect they still take History very seriously. That’s certainly been my experience — officers, especially, are very well informed. Military history is dead in the academy, but it’s alive and well out in the real world.

  4. WOPR

    Personally, I’ve enjoyed most of the stuff you can get from The Great Courses. Of course I usually read the reviews and avoid the ones that get nailed for lefty bias. I heard that early on the people running the business told the professors that they weren’t there to let their latest lefty flag fly. Seems they’ve managed to keep them in line for the most part.

    I remember 10-15 years ago reading that the most popular history classes on campus were military (Civil War, WWII, etc.) or standard histories (Roman Empire, etc.) The issue was that they tended to be taught by either older or conservative professors. Both of which were disappearing from campus. So, there did used to be some solid interest. But, intersectionality has turned it into a wasteland.

    Side note, daughter took a Civil War history class in college as an honors course. Her extra paper’s subject, assigned to her, was on Pacific Islanders in the Civil War. Nothing like trying to kill interest in a subject.

    1. Severian

      — I had the same experience back in my college days. Lots of non-majors taking classes like “The Roman Empire,” because it was good general interest stuff. But yeah, then that prof retired, and though the class was still called “The Roman Empire,” it was really “Gays, Blacks, and Women in the Ancient Mediterranean.”

      — Pacific Islanders in the Civil War? What, all three of them? I can’t say I’m surprised at an assignment like this, but boy howdy. You might come out of a modern Civil War class wondering who Jefferson Davis was, but you’ll never lack for information on women soldiers and the US Colored Troops.

  5. Jimmy Stewart

    “Who would you rather be locked in with, a guy who looks like he might know how a clothes iron works, or a blue-haired, face-shrapneled, sleeve-tattooed, unshaven androgynous blob that changes xzhyr pronouns every few weeks?”


    Is it not the case that the blue hair’s aren’t in demand from the student body? I would not have thought excessive poz a bug but a feature for new students?

    1. Severian Post author

      In my experience, most college students want to get the “class” part of college over as quickly as possible. Since everything counts as an “extracurricular” nowadays, and all extracurriculars are excused, teaching to a half-full classroom is the norm, even if you make attendance part of the final grade.

      So it’s about 50/50. Half the students want the blue-haired nose-ringers, because their class is the easiest possible A — just cut-and-paste “Orange Man Bad” onto every assignment and you’re good. On the other hand, since these days the blue-haired nose-ringers teach all the high school classes, too, kids find sitting though yet another intersectionality lecture too tedious to bear. So the other half do everything they can to avoid the nuttier SJWs.

  6. Al from da Nort


    The future you predicted has arrived in a neighboring state: No more history majors_!

    I’d bet that you’ll find this article darkly amusing for its obtuseness . The more so if you are familiar with the actual state of affairs in the regional of the Tier 2 U that is the subject of the story, U of WI, Stevens Point (UWSP). The local economy depends on tourist service workers, loggers, a few foresters, and paper mill workers and millwrights. Also there are pockets of local manufacturing that the Chines have not yet strangled. Also there is cold climate specialty ag., i.e. ginseng, cranberries and wild rice: Oh yeah, and Indian Casinos.

    So you can imagine the horror at UWSP when then Gov Walker put the cat among the pigeons by proposing that they do a little something about making themselves relevant and useful to the local economy.

    1. Severian

      Heh. My last employer, “Flyover State,” is a composite of several different programs I’ve taught at, in several different regions… one of which was similar to UWSP. It’s always a balancing act in that kind of program — you have to pretend you’re doing the whole “educated citizenry” thing of classical pedagogy, while acknowledging that 99% of the student body is there to get the equivalent of a jobs training certificate. It never ends well.

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