David M. Shribman:An appreciation of history (classes)

January 1, 2019

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. 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 College 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.”

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.

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 M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.

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