The Future Of American History

 (Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images)
(Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images)

College history majors used to study The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Today perhaps they should also be studying the decline and fall of history majors.

Since 2010, the number of history majors at Ohio State University has dropped by more than 30 percent, according to a May 9 Columbus Dispatch story. Meanwhile, the number of students majoring in history at the University of Cincinnati has fallen by 33 percent since 2010.

At the University of Illinois, the Daily Illini noted on April 2 that the number of students enrolled in the college's history department has fallen precipitously in the past 10 years — from 521 in 2005 to 167 in 2015.

These recent stories reflect a 2013 report from the American Historical Association showing a downward trend in undergraduate students earning degrees in history.

So why is the number of history majors diminishing? "Experts blame anxieties about the job market for steering students into fields they think will translate to jobs quickly after graduation," the Columbus Dispatch story observes. "Often that's the STEM disciplines that politicians have championed — science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

More Inclusive

Teaching American history in the contemporary classroom — and in the coming years — holds some particular, and complicated, challenges. To put the challenges in some context, we contacted a trio of American history professors.

In your teaching experience, do students these days seem to be more interested in American history than students in the past, or less interested?

Michele Gillespie has been teaching American history since 1990. She is also Dean of the College at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N. C.

"My students still gravitate toward American history," Gillespie says, "but they are much more interested these days in seeing that history in a broader world context, whether we are looking at American slavery, the American Civil War, or social movements like civil rights."

Students today, Gillespie says, "are much more likely to critique American and European scholars for only using Western comparative contexts, and my students are also inclined to bring comparisons from their other courses on African, Latin American, East Asian, South Asian and Middle East history into my U.S. history courses."

The result: "It makes for a dynamic, exciting classroom, one in which my students, who see themselves as global citizens in many respects, are taking real ownership."

Annelise Orleck, a professor of American history at Dartmouth College, has also been teaching at the college level for 25 years. "My classes are bigger and I am now getting quite a few students who are deeply interested, willing to do a great deal of work," Orleck says, "especially because I teach American history in a way that is more inclusive and challenging of dominant myths than most of them were exposed to in high school."

"Students are just as interested in history now as they were in the past," says Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor in the history department at Stanford University. "Students have always looked to history to better understand their worlds. Professors have the responsibility of making history accessible to students so that they can make better sense of their lives and so that they can see the connections and similarities between their life circumstances and the life circumstances of their parents and grandparents."

Dismantled Notions

What are a couple of the particular challenges of teaching American history in 2015?

"Unfortunately," says Allyson Hobbs, "there has been a decline in the value that many people place on history and the humanities, more generally. Particularly in Silicon Valley, there is a major emphasis on the technology industry, which leads many students to major in computer science or engineering. Still, computer scientists will create more useful and revolutionary products and services if they have a deeper understanding of the world around them, which comes from the study of history.

"The value of history lies in its ability to help us to better understand the present," says Hobbs. "This is particularly salient now given the tragedies of police violence, the massacre in Charleston, and the problems of economic inequality, poverty, educational disparities and mass incarceration. But this history is painful to face. It is a challenge for history professors to help students grapple with these societal issues."

The major challenge in teaching American history, according to Annelise Orleck, "is that this is a wildly diverse nation and it is complicated to try to do justice to the stories of the many kinds of people who have made and lived American history."

Another major difficulty, Orleck says, "is grappling with how to teach painful histories — histories of slavery, Native American genocide, Jim Crow and lynching, Japanese internment — in ways that are accessible and useful to students and that challenge them emotionally and intellectually while not making them shut down."

For Michele Gillespie, "the fast-paced change in American society and the U.S. in the world over the last decade or so means students bring fundamentally different sets of questions and experiences to the table."

This is both a challenge and an opportunity, she continues. "For example, President Obama's election was supposed to have launched a post-racial U.S., but subsequent events, including Ferguson, have dismantled that notion. Students really want to understand the historic underpinnings of racism in their embrace of the 'black lives matter' movement. This creates a powerful opportunity to look at the close coupling of the rise of American democracy and slavery in U.S. history, and students have a deeper investment in that analysis."

In another example, Gillespie says, "Not all students are convinced they need to know a great deal about U.S. history anymore. Some​ believe in the power of the global marketplace to shape their present and future lives, and therefore see our hallmark U.S. institutions — the Constitution, citizenship, federal government system ... ​and the histories attached to them — ​as arcane compared to the new worlds that technology, innovation and consumption are spawning."


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