History: A Troubled Field Likely to Get Worse

Here’s a sign of the times: the head of the American Historical Association says departments should integrate communication, collaboration, and three other “basic skills” into their programs. In other words. Jobs in history are dwindling, so graduate students in the field had better prepare some backup plans.

I heard the same thing in literary studies several years ago when the job market tanked after the financial crisis.  Back then, though, graduate students resented the advice.  They went into the programs because they wanted an academic job.  They sat in undergraduate classes, looked up at the professor at the podium, and thought, “I want to do that.” They idealized the life of the mind, imagined themselves writing books and essays, delivering lectures to colleagues at conferences, and spending summers in archives in Paris and Bologna and Mexico City.  To be told that they should consider something else, a curator or archivist or writer for a not-for-profit strikes most of them as a letdown.

It’s not that they regard those other jobs as unimportant.  It’s just that they don’t follow the academic schedule.  You must show up five days a week and log regular hours.  You can’t travel during the summer.  You can’t stay home on non-teaching days and read books.

You don’t set your own agenda, either.  You must report to a boss.   All an academic must do is produce respectable publications and teach moderately well, and then you’ve got security and freedom.

If you work in an office, moreover, you don’t have students looking to you for guidance and wisdom and grades.   However, much humanities professors feel disrespected by the larger culture and the administration, each semester they have a group of youths, more or less, under their control.

Yes, there is a still a romance that attaches to the academic life.  It’s nice work, if you can get it.  I enter my office each day and feel wholly grateful to have my job at Emory–and lucky, too.  I can’t tell graduate students in their 4th and 5th year to think about going somewhere else.  I’d be embarrassed to do so.

If the professional associations wish to help graduate students, alternative careers are not the first solution.  Instead, they must produce the condition that will create more jobs in the annual listings, namely, undergraduate demand.  The reason administrators don’t approve more lines for humanities departments is that enrollments don’t warrant it.  When the numbers go down, so do jobs.  If a dean sees that history courses are only half-filled, requests for new lines are met with a chuckle.  But if he has lots of undergraduates on his hands who can’t get into the courses they want, then new lines will follow.

This requires, however, a concerted effort on the part of history professors to make their courses more appealing to a broader range of undergraduates.  Intersectionality won’t do it, nor will courses on the various crimes and sins of the past, the racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, and imperialism of the Western nations.  Some students will enjoy listening to history professors recount the exploitations Western nations have wrought upon people of color.  Some students will like hearing American chided for failing its ideals.  But not enough of them to sustain the fields.  Most students who, in high school, liked reading about Civil War battles and got a kick out of tales of European royalty won’t be drawn to social history, that is, representations of people “at the bottom.” It’s a downer to them, with too much resentment mixed in with the learning.

This is the truth that so many tenured humanities professors don’t wish to admit.  American students aren’t interested in what they have to say.  The professors may attribute that reaction to careerism, complacency, “whiteness,” and ideology, but the fact remains that the undergraduates are voting with their feet.  The undergraduates are the ones on whom the health of the discipline, including the job market, rests.  Until the humanities start asking themselves seriously how they can rebuild enrollments at the low end, the situation of too many PhDs for too few opening is only going to get worse.

6 thoughts on “History: A Troubled Field Likely to Get Worse”

  1. If only there were a significant anniversary of a great historical event that university history/humanities departments could celebrate as a means to awaken the wider student body. We know now that almost no American university found the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta back in 2015 to be such an event worthy of promotion and celebration. There’s been more news coverage of the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet paradise.

  2. Am I being obtuse, or does the idea of making history courses more interesting to attract more students to major in history to become academic historians who teach interesting courses sound a bit like a Ponzi scheme? Shouldn’t there be historians who practice outside the university who provide value to a wider society?

    1. There are three traditional markets for BA-level humanity grads:

      First is K-12 — many state colleges were founded as “Normal Schools”, colleges for future teachers. (Yes, it does help to have a high school teacher who knows that the US Constitution was written in 1787 and not 1987…)

      Second was the “Mrs. Degree” — women planning to become society wives and needing the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation at cocktail parties — the culturally literacy expected of a politician’s or executive’s wife. Or of the executive assistant to the corporate vice-president.

      Third was the purpose of liberal arts in general — to educate members of a self governing society so they could live in liberty.

      All of these markets still exist to some extent — if academia could turn down the politics a bit and actually teach undergrads.

  3. Really, what has to happen is the creation of new History and English departments under different names— say, “Culture” and “Fiction”. The names don’t really matter. What matters is getting 3 lines and a new department, which then would teach popular, real, courses, attract undergraduates, and thus attract new lines from the dean. The dean will be leftwing and radical, but he will care more about getting funding from the President, and to do that he desperately needs to attract students away from the business school, etc., which most of his departments refuse to do because they want to teach cultural Marxism.

  4. Have you seen Prof. Niall Ferguson’s speech upon receiving an award from ACTA? It’s available on the Youtube Channel GOACTA. It echos some of the same things, especially the replacement of history curricula with overt politicization.

    I halfway considered a PhD in Political Science, but I honestly cannot see an open career track.

  5. The cultures of academic institutions limit academic freedom to a narrow, left-wing circumference. Within the circumference, most anything goes, but a professor is not academically free to step outside. The origins of this circumscribed conformity were in foundation and Democratic support for higher education in the first half of the twentieth century. (See Christopher P. Loss’s “Between Citizens and the State for detail about how the New Deal used higher education as an ideological mediating device. However, the links also go back to the General Education Board’s and Carnegie Foundation’s emphasis on secularization and positivism.) Today, the isomorphism of universities’ political culture (and the singular is appropriate) is symptomatic of a more general organizational decline that comes from the aging of strategy and the conversion of bureaucratic rules like academic freedom into rituals. The same phenomenon has been observed in the auto industry and other manufacturing industries that have fallen to Japanese competition.

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