Historians Argue That The History Major Won’t Go the Way of the Dodo

Historians in the News
tags: higher education, academia, history majors

Featuring Philip Balson, Olivia Daniels, Ethan Ehrenhaft, Max Minshull, and Marie-Capucine Pineau-Valencienne.


Know Your Audience

Americans have belatedly noticed history’s decline as a university discipline. I’ve seen this decline firsthand at Harvard, where the number of history majors has plummeted. Most writing on this topic, stressing economic incentives or donor neglect, misses the point. My own history department does not face a demand shortage. It suffers from insufficient supply.

My peers want to study recent history, especially the great events and forces that shaped our world. The most popular history classes last year covered the Vietnam War and American capitalism. Prize-winning senior theses addressed Nazi spies and oil markets. But these are outliers. Remarkably, Harvard’s history department does not prioritize its most engaging scholarship. In my four years, there has been no general survey course on the Cold War. Instead we get “Cold War in the Global South.” Even those classes that touch on big, interesting topics often seem to come with an identity-politics twist. A course on “Islamicate societies,” for instance, explicitly stressed “gender and religious minorities.”

What gets taught is largely a function of who gets hired. The history department’s website lists 33 social historians, eight labor historians and two book historians, but not a single military historian. It doesn’t help that some historians here argue that history should be studied for its own sake, not debased to explain the contemporary world.

Jill Lepore, a senior history professor on campus, has warned publicly of the danger of failing to teach and study America’s national history. If universities want to revive the study of history, Prof. Lepore’s colleagues need to learn a simple lesson: To get undergraduates to study history, teach the history that we want to learn.

-Philip Balson

Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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