A few years ago, when critics of academia warned that the humanities were sinking, academics shot back with data showing that enrollments were steady and the departments were doing just fine. They also sprinkled smug remarks about Chicken-Little conservatives who were just upset that the hegemony of the traditional canon had crumbled.
We don’t need to answer this ad hominem. The evidence speaks for us. Earlier this month, the American Historical Association released a survey of 123 history departments and found a 7.6 percent decline in enrollments over a two-year period, 2012-13 to 2014-15. Enrollment slipped in 96 departments and rose in only 27 departments. In absolute numbers, enrollments in those schools went from 390,000 to 360,000.
This finding expands on the finding noted a few months earlier by the Association that the numbers of history majors dropped significantly from 2013 to 2014. At the same time, the Association reported that the number of earned doctorates in history in 2014 maintained a steady trend of growth. In other words, we have more history professors to teach fewer history students.
There is an irony to this decline. When I started graduate school in the 1980s, history had just become THE loaded term in the field of English. It had a particular moral-political force. What history was claimed to do was this: to reveal traditional values and concepts as historical constructs, not objective realities. The difference between high culture and popular culture collapsed, it was alleged, as soon as we put it into a historical context in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which an elite tried to distinguish itself from a rising middle class.
The literary canon could be shown to be a fairly recent creation, not a sacred corpus from time immemorial. Western civilization could be dislodged from the center of the history of the world, and American Exceptionalism could be revealed in all its political tactics and demythologized.
Everyone, then, was to study history. “Always historicize!” was one slogan of the time. Deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, reader-response criticism, and formalism no longer had any cachet. Instead, the trend was New Historicism and historically-inflected political criticism (Edward Said’s Orientalism was the model) and Foucault, whose archival historical work gave his speculations about sexuality and politics great authority.
Many of my peers were mighty exhilarated by it all. They wielded history as if it were a hammer to take down the idols of humanitas, beauty and Great Books and high art. But undergraduates don’t seem to feel the same inspiration. The humanities are, indeed, declining, and it has happened on their watch, the liberals and leftists who run the place. They insist on the centrality of historical understanding, but they are losing in the competitive terrain of the campus marketplace. Eighteen- and 19-year-olds are increasingly uninterested in what the history professors have to say. They are voting with their feet.