Janie Cheaney: The end of the history major


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 17th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Janie B. Cheaney now on how history is no longer the academic discipline it once was.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: I’ve discovered that if you live long enough, “history” is something you actually remember. When I entered high school, Churchill and Eisenhower were history, while JFK’s assassination still seemed current. In my 40s, I was shocked to realize that the Vietnam War had become history. Wait a minute—I lived through that!

Today’s young people may be missing a sense of history altogether. The number of university history majors has dropped 30 percent. This could be because the trend is overwhelmingly in favor of STEM courses and social sciences, while history seems irrelevant.

But critics say the profession has made itself irrelevant. Like philosophy, literature, and the arts, history was once about the big picture: trends, revolutions, restorations and innovations. It was about human personality and how certain causes bring about predictable effects.

In the publishing world history is still big-picture—and big time. David McCullough and Brian Kilmeade, to name just two, hit the best-seller lists with every new title. Some authors may be more “popular” than others, but they work from a storytelling blueprint: central theme, fascinating personalities, consequential events.

Meanwhile, academic history stuffs itself with unread doctrinal dissertations. It focuses on minutia and unclaimed niches. The drama of social change and war is out of fashion. Instead of cause and effect, it’s consumed with power and privilege: who has it, how to get it.

Last year the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced it was scrapping six liberal-arts majors, including history. Outraged professors blamed the Republican-controlled legislature for budget cuts. But the school provost explained that students just don’t seem to consider humanities majors to be worthwhile. “They’re far more cost-conscious than they used to be,” he said.

No wonder: with a price tag above $8,000 per semester for tuition and housing, young people have to become cost-benefit experts. History and the humanities may have priced themselves out of the market. And at least some professors have painted themselves into a corner of irrelevance.

For example, the chairman of the history department at Stevens Point fears a seminar on the Holocaust will be on the chopping block. The Holocaust should be studied, but this particular seminar is part of a major in “Race and Ethnicity,” not general history. The school doesn’t even offer a course on World War II. The threatened seminar, by the sound of it, focuses on an issue to which university students and professors may already feel themselves immune.

“Race and ethnicity” never existed in a vacuum. They fit into of the mosaic of human evil. Boiling the horror of the Holocaust down to Exhibit A of racism inoculates students from its other lessons, such as the dangers of godlessness and pride. Flattening history into one perspective does something even worse to students: it bores them.

History lives when we see the faults, and the virtues, of our fathers reflected in ourselves. When it becomes prim and judgmental, it dies.  

For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.


(Photo/Creative Commons)

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