As a blog that has the word “history” in its title, I think we need to pause and talk a little bit about that word, because it’s in the news again. Let me explain.
I used to serve as an undergraduate advisor for a History Department in the US, and in that capacity, I saw that starting around 2012 the number of students majoring in History started to decline rapidly. That decline continued for about 5 years, until the number of majors was around 50% what it had once been.
This same decline in History majors has taken place at universities all across America (and I’m sure in other parts of the world too), and historian Benjamin M. Schmidt has just published a new article about this topic.
While this is first time that Schmidt has written specifically about History, he wrote an article in 2013 about the Humanities in general and argued at that time that even though the number of students majoring in the Humanities was declining, that this would not be a long-term trend.
Earlier this year, however, Schmidt declared that he was wrong in that article (as the number or students majoring in Humanities subjects has indeed continued to decline) and that “Mea culpa: there *is* a crisis in the humanities.”
Why is this happening? This is what Schmidt says:
“Why has the number of degrees fallen so rapidly? 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. . . there seems to have been a longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students. The fields that have fallen almost as much as history since 2008 tend to share methodologies or subject areas with our discipline; they include most of the other humanities and many of the more qualitatively inclined social sciences, including political science, anthropology, and sociology.”
Ok, so there was an economic downturn in 2008, and the number of people majoring in History started to decline after that. But is the lack of interest in majoring in History really just because of strategic calculations about job prospects?
Are there really no other factors out there that are influencing students’ decision to not major in History?
Think of some of the developments that took place right before that economic downturn in 2008:
Facebook got started in 2004, then YouTube in 2005, followed by Twitter in 2006, and then finally there was the emergence of the first iPhone in 2007.
Yes, there was a temporary economic downturn in 2008, but these other developments (and the Internet that they rely on) have changed human existence on planet earth more dramatically than any other transformation. . . ever, maybe?
Might it be that the decline in the number of History majors is somehow connected to the fact that the ways that human beings access information and communicate today has changed more in the past 10 years than it has in the previous (choose a number) centuries?
What has changed? Simply put, human beings spend a lot less time these days looking at “lots of words on lots of pages.” Yes, they read many words on Facebook pages, and in Tweets, and they watch hours upon hours of YouTube videos, but they don’t spend much time reading material that has “lots of words on lots of pages,” that is, books and articles.
To put it differently, human beings are relying much more on visual communication today than they were just 10 years ago, and this, I would argue, is one big reason why students are not interested in majoring in History. A disciple that’s all about “lots of words on lots of pages” just doesn’t make sense to people who access reality through iPhones and YouTube.
The above chart (a form of visual communication. . .) shows this clearly. The majors that have seen the most decline are listed at the bottom, and they are all majors that rely heavily on “lots of words on lots of pages.”
As an historian, I’m ok with this. As I look out over the vast span of human history, I can see that mass literacy has only been around for about a century, whereas for millennia human beings (other than a tiny literate elite) have communicated with each other through oral and visual means. . . and that has worked just fine.
The Internet and the cellphone are creating a hybrid form of communication, one that combines oral, visual and written communication, and it will work for human kind just as well as any other form of communication.
Again, I’m ok with that, and that’s why we have YouTube videos alongside blogposts here on Le Minh Khai’s SEAsian History Blog.
But the fact that most History departments in the world are not (yet) ok with that has, I would argue, a lot to do with why students are not ok with majoring in History. A world that communicates through “lots of words on lots of pages” doesn’t make much sense, and is difficult to apply, to a world that communicates by many other means.
Will this decline in the number of people majoring in History lead to “the end of History,” that is, to the end of History as a major at universities?
No, but it does suggest to me that as long as History as a field confines itself to communicating through “lots of words on lots of pages,” it will continue on this path of becoming an ever more minor and peripheral field of study for human beings today.
Ok, enough of that! It’s time to get back to communicating about the past in the digital age (but if anyone wants to think more about these issues, my Content Asian Studies flash blog has more posts like this one).