Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The End of History? Fewer People Are Studying History and the Consequences Could Be Dire, Writes David M. Shribman

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The End of History? Fewer People Are Studying History and the Consequences Could Be Dire, Writes David M. Shribman

Article excerpt

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 discernable 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. …

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