Opinion: Losing interest in our history and how the world works

David Shribman

Though books about history — by writers such as David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Doris Kearns Goodwin and others — sell briskly, the future of the past in American life is facing some stern mathematics:

A recent study shows that over the past six years no discipline has lost favor — measured in the number of undergraduates who choose to major in the subject — as dramatically as history.

Detroit Public Schools Community District teacher Brandy Walker follows along in a text book during  training on the district’s new curriculum at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit on July 17, 2018. Walker, a 5th grade reading teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion Cultural Studies school, became a Master Teacher at DPSCD this year. She plans to teach her regular class a half day this school year and use the other half as a master teacher to support the other teachers.

In fact the numbers are startling. American universities conferred 24,266 history degrees last year, a dramatic fall from the 36,642 degrees awarded in 2008, according to a study by Benjamin M. Schmidt, a Northeastern University historian. While degrees in exercise and computer science soared by more than 50 percent, history dropped by about a third.

This study comes amid indicators of a major decline in the appeal of the liberal arts, particularly the humanities, in part because parents are less willing to underwrite college studies that lead to no discernible profession.

‘’Families with college-bound students have come to equate one’s B.A. major with post-graduate status and wealth,’’ said Michael Birkner, a Gettysburg University historian. ‘’In reality, because of an increasingly diverse curriculum and enrichment opportunities available to them, history students have never had more success or personal fulfillment pursuing post baccalaureate career paths across a wide spectrum of options: academia, secondary school teaching, law, business, the military, librarianship and public history.’’

‘’I am now convinced these trends spell sustained trouble over the long term,’’ said Hunter Rawlings III, a classics scholar who has been president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell University.

This is not necessarily a worldwide phenomenon. The number of British young people who study history for one of their graduating subjects in high school (English A-levels) has remained relatively constant.

‘’History is still seen as an intellectually rigorous and challenging degree which opens pathways into professional life,’’ said Lawrence Goldman, a senior research fellow at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, who is spending the fall semester at the University of Missouri.

By now you surely have guessed that, long ago, I was a history major and that I contacted a bunch of my friends and associates to weigh in on the crisis in history.

But I have found that the study of history is more than the memorization of dates, more than the recitation of speeches, more than the easy-chair examination of lords and ladies, statesmen and senators, of yore, though in truth I have to admit that in five years of undergraduate and graduate studies and a lifetime of reading books that my children ridicule I have enjoyed it immensely. Pure joy in a world of toil shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

But I also have found that a grounding in history has been an indispensable aid in understanding how the world works; in discovering that how the world works changes over time; and in realizing that the past itself is not static but instead is ever-changing. A generation ago, for example, Thomas Jefferson was a sentinel of personal liberty and Andrew Jackson was the personification of America’s most robust democratic ideals. Today the reputations of these men, slaveholders both, are stained by claims that they were racists, hypocrites, in Jackson’s case a genocidal murderer.

You don’t have to be a newspaper columnist or an editor to reap history’s benefits. They are essential elements of being a citizen in a democracy and of being a human in a period of change. But it is also true that, like so many other disciplines, the teaching of history itself must change.

Many years ago I came under the thrall of James E. Wright, then a junior faculty member in history, later the president of Dartmouth College. He taught me the political history that has sustained me throughout my career but, more than that, he taught me how to think historically. In all our conversations over more than four decades I have been wise enough to permit him to have the last word. In this case he deserves the last 54 words. Here they are:

‘’Americans are losing their sense of history. We need to recognize the role that sense has played in enriching this Republic and in affirming and extending its values. The degeneration of our civic dialogue and the withdrawal from any sense of public and civic responsibility is a clear warning sign of this growing failure.’’

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.