History is Ending. . .

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?

text majors

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.”

visual communication

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.

end of history

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).

2 thoughts on “History is Ending. . .

  1. As you say — that chart shows that all the humanities have been whacked by this trend. In primary school education the zeitgeist is STEM – or sometimes STEAM, with an A for arts inserted. It’s interesting that art and music have held steady on this chart. Arts management appears to be thriving — a form of training that seems more vocational in nature.

    I don’t think history as “lots of words on pages” is dead. There are hundreds of history books published every year, and some of them sell pretty well. Biography often is an outgrowth of history and continues to be a thriving genre.

    I haven’t taken a history course since Music History in 1979, and never studied university history so I am well removed from the concerns (or zeitgeist) of the profession. But I would think that the profession should be looking for a way to sell itself “vocationally” in some sense. What can you do with a degree? Does the discipline prepare its students practically to do anything?

    At a minimum it should teach students how to read, how to think and how to write (All good things to know). And your advocacy of moving into other media is certainly sound. I would think that history could prepare someone well for being a teacher, librarian or lawyer. I think the tyranny of STEM will relax soon because there is a constant need for people who know how to reason, research and communicate.

    1. The way that the profession sells itself “vocationally” is by precisely what you say here: it teaches students how to read, how to think and how to write.

      There are problems with this “sales pitch” though. First, I would argue that it’s always been more “in theory” than “in practice.” To what extent does a student’s ability to read/think/write actually improve while in a BA program in History? Has this ever been studied or measured in any way? I’m not aware of any such studies, but my own observation is that there is very little change that takes place (at least in the context where I have experience – a state school where students balance school with work, and that can mean 30+ hours of work a week).

      How many History profs actually teach about writing? How many actually comment on a student’s writing? I don’t have an answer for these questions either, only anecdotal evidence from students who have said things to me like “Thanks! This is the first time that a prof has actually commented on my writing.”

      Now in the Digital Age this tenuous claim is even further from the truth. I’ve recently been trying to “optimize” some web pages with academic writing on them so that search engines can 1) know what they are about and thus 2) inform people who are looking for information about those topics that these web pages exist. This process (SEO – “search engine optimization”) is key for communication in the Digital Age, and I think it would be safe to say that it is something that academics 1) probably don’t know much about, 2) clearly don’t think about when they write, and 3) don’t teach their students about.

      So, yea, it sounds comforting to profs to say that we are teaching people to read/think/write, but the reality. . .

      As for teachers, librarians, lawyers. . . Yes, I think people still see a history major as a path to becoming a high school history teacher. I can’t vouch for the sanity of people who make it through high school and still want to be a high school teacher, but they have my utmost respect!!

      Lawyers – that used to be the big backup justification for the History major: “Well, there’s always law school.” However, computers, outsourcing and the exorbitant cost of law school have all taken a severe toll on the attractiveness of the legal profession, so the number of students who head down that path has dwindled too.

      As for librarians. . . I just saw some article about the “top majors that have the hardest time finding a job,” and librarian was at the top. I wonder about that though. Yes, it might be difficult to get a job as a “librarian,” but the skills that I see people in library programs learning today (databases, etc.), certainly looks like skills that could be applied in many other settings than libraries.

      To be fair, there is some of that stuff (in the form of what we call Digital Humanities) entering the History profession too (and the guy who wrote the above article about the decline in History majors is big into that), but all of this tends to be mainly at the graduate school level.

      Finally, as for art and music, yea, I think that’s interesting. One thing that you can often see is that whenever there is an article talking about the decline of the Humanities or History majors, etc., you can always find people in these disciplines making (I would say condescending) remarks about how “practical” young people are being. I don’t think, however, the decline in History majors is all about people being more practical. Instead, it’s about coolness, something that is very impractical, and which relates to art and music.

      The Digital Revolution has brought different types of benefits to different disciplines, but art and music have benefited tremendously. Now thanks to all of Adobe’s products (Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, After Effects, etc.), “anyone” can become a graphic designer or an artist or a photographer or a film maker or a motion graphics artist, etc. And thanks to the wide range of digital audio workstations (DAWs) and the endless number of digital instruments/effects/products, “anyone” can become a musician or a composer or songwriter.

      And to be fair, there are LOTS of people who are making careers for themselves in those fields from the comfort of their bedroom “music studios” or the comfort of the café “art studio” seat where they are sitting with their laptop. Even more importantly, it’s all SO COOL!!! Who wouldn’t want to be a “digital nomad” who travels the world making YouTube videos of their adventures and posting hip pictures on Instagram all while maintaining a successful graphic design or web page development business in cyberspace?

      However, this is an increasingly difficult world to enter, and an even more difficult one to succeed in, but my sense is that the (impractical) lure is still very strong (because it’s cool), so art and music programs are going to benefit from that (and to be fair to those programs, I think many have done a very good job of embracing what the digital world has to offer).

      So young people are still as impractical as they’ve always been. It’s just that the ways that they are choosing to be impractical are different from in the past (and their choices are related to what they perceive to be cool). When I was in college, studying Comparative Literature was considered impractical, and part of me was really attracted to that (knew a guy who was doing Russian and Arabic comparative literature – I thought that was so cool!!). . . but I ended up going for a balance – Russian language and literature (the language part was “practical” – could always work for the CIA. . .). Deep down I would have loved to have gone into film, but that was too difficult (the only option was to get into NYU film school). So if I was young today. . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s