war on the rocks

The Historical Profession is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide

December 10, 2018

A recent study confirms a disturbing trend: American college students are abandoning the study of history. Since 2008, the number of students majoring in history in U.S. universities has dropped 30 percent, and history now accounts for a smaller share of all U.S. bachelor’s degrees than at any time since 1950. Although all humanities disciplines have suffered declining enrollments since 2008, none has fallen as far as history. And this decline in majors has been even steeper at elite, private universities — the very institutions that act as standard bearers and gate-keepers for the discipline. The study of history, it seems, is itself becoming a relic of the past.

It is tempting to blame this decline on relatively recent factors from outside the historical profession. There are more majors to choose from than in the past. As a broader segment of American society has pursued higher education, promising job prospects offered by other fields, from engineering to business, has no doubt played a role in history’s decline. Women have moved in disproportionate numbers away from the humanities and towards the social sciences. The lingering consequences of the Great Recession and the growing emphasis on STEM education have had their effects, as well.

Yet a deeper dive into the statistics reveals that history’s fortunes have worsened not over a period of years, but over decades. In the late 1960s, over six percent of male undergraduates and almost five percent of female undergraduates majored in history. Today, those numbers are less than 2 percent and 1 percent. History’s collapse began well before the financial crash.

This fact underscores the sad truth of history’s predicament: The discipline mostly has itself to blame for its current woes. In recent decades, the academic historical profession has become steadily less accessible to students and the general public — and steadily less relevant to addressing critical matters of politics, diplomacy, and war and peace. It is not surprising that students are fleeing history, for the historical discipline has long been fleeing its twin responsibilities to interact with the outside world and engage some of the most fundamental issues confronting the United States.

Consider the first of these issues: the retreat of scholarly history from the public square. There was a time when academic historians actively engaged in shaping policy on the critical issues of the day, and when the top academic historians wrote for a larger public audience. Woodrow Wilson engaged the country’s leading diplomatic historians to help him prepare for the Versailles Peace conference. Eminent scholars such as William Langer, Arthur Schlesinger, Ernest May, and Richard Pipes served in or consulted with government while retaining their academic positions during the Cold War. Schlesinger, Daniel Boorstin, C. Vann Woodward, and Richard Hofstadter wrote widely read books that drove public debate on issues such as political reform, populism, McCarthyism, and the broader American political tradition.

Yet as the historical discipline (like much of the American academy) became more professionalized, especially after World War II, it also became more specialized and inward-looking. Historical scholarship focused on increasingly arcane subjects; a fascination with innovative methodologies overtook an emphasis on clear, intelligible prose. Academic historians began writing largely for themselves. “Popularizer” — someone who writes for the wider world — became a term of derision within the profession.

Similarly, after the Vietnam War drove a wedge between government and the academy, historians tended to shun constructive engagement with policymakers in favor of a more confrontational approach premised on “speaking truth to power.” They came to regard “presentism” — using the past as a way of addressing the challenges of the present — as a distortion of the historian’s task. “History,” wrote one prominent historian in a stinging indictment of the relationship of an earlier generation of intellectuals to the federal government, “cannot in the first instance be concerned with navigating the ship of state.”

The result of these changes is a discipline that feels remarkably parochial to students or anyone outside the ivory tower. As Harvard’s Jill Lepore, the profession’s leading exception to these trends, recently pointed out, “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.”

The second issue, closely related to the first, is the hostility toward certain kinds of historical inquiry. Decades ago, the subfields of political history, diplomatic history, and military history dominated the discipline. That focus had its costs: Issues of race, gender, and class were often deemphasized, and the perspectives of the powerless were frequently ignored in favor of the perspectives of the powerful. During the 1960s and after, the discipline was therefore swept by new approaches that emphasized cultural, social, and gender history, and that paid greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups. This was initially a very healthy impulse, meant to broaden the field. Yet what was initially a very healthy impulse to broaden the field ultimately became decidedly unhealthy, because it went so far as to push the more traditional subfields to the margins.

Two historians, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, have noted that “American political history as a field of study has cratered … What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.” Political history, however, is a growth industry compared to diplomatic history and military history. Scholars who study strategy and statecraft, diplomacy and policymaking, and the causes and consequences of war are often labeled as old-fashioned, methodologically unimaginative, and ideologically conservative. As a recent chair of a prominent history department recently explained to us, the discipline of history does not consider exploring and understanding the decisions of state leaders or military officials to be interesting, important, or innovative. Not surprisingly, those who study these subjects are a dying breed within major American history departments.

According to the American Historical Association, only three percent of practicing historians self-identified as diplomatic historians in 2015, as compared to seven percent in 1975. Only 44 percent of all history departments employed a diplomatic historian in 2015, compared to 85 percent four decades earlier. During the 2014–15 academic year, only nine out of 587 history jobs advertised with the American Historical Association were for positions in diplomatic or international history. During the 2015–16 academic year, the tally was three out of 572 — around one half of one percent. If anything, these dire numbers actually understate the problem. In an understandable effort at self-preservation within an inhospitable field, many self-identified diplomatic and military historians study questions far removed from the exercise of state power or the causes of war and peace. They are more likely to focus on the role of sports, gender, or culture in international and military affairs than on traditional aspects of statecraft.

Meanwhile, the number of military and diplomatic history courses taught in leading departments of history has plummeted. According to statistics compiled by one historian, in the fall of 1966 the Harvard history department offered numerous courses dealing with issues such as the world wars, the Cold War, and the history of the British empire. In 2016, the department had only one course addressing any of these subjects. While direct causation is difficult to prove here, it hardly seems a coincidence that undergraduate interest in history has plummeted just as the discipline has stopped emphasizing subjects that are central to understanding national and international politics alike. And it is probably no accident that in those relatively few elite universities where diplomatic, military, and political history are still respected and taught — Yale University comes to mind — enrollments in history departments remain relatively stable.

There is irony and tragedy aplenty in this situation. The first two classic works of history — the Histories of Herodotus and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War — were efforts to understand the sources of war and peace. At Johns Hopkins, America’s first modern research university, the seminar room in the History Department was once emblazoned with the motto, “History is past politics and politics present history.” Given the tragedy and suffering generated by conflict, given the centrality of politics and political power to every aspect of human life, historians until recent times understood the fundamental importance of political, diplomatic, and military history. The present marginalization of those fields is not simply hurting history enrollments. It is hurting the country’s ability to cope with pressing problems.

At a time when international tensions are rising, rivalry among the great powers is sharpening, and the prospect of major international war no longer seems so remote, the historical discipline is devoting scant effort to generating the knowledge that might equip the United States to deal effectively with these challenges. And at a time when the nation’s democratic norms and institutions are under significant strain, academic historians are paying comparatively little attention to how political power is gained and wielded in the American system.

Few historians would quarrel with the notion that more historical knowledge makes for smarter public policy. Few would contest the idea that a historically uninformed population is more susceptible to conspiratorial thinking and an inability to differentiate “fake news” from the real thing. Yet academic historians simply are not focusing their efforts on some of the issues that matter most to the fate of the United States and the international system today. Instead of possessing deep historical knowledge that serves as the intellectual foundation for effective policy and informed debate, the nation risks worsening historical ignorance with all its attendant dangers.

To be clear, we are not advocating “court history” or approaches that ignore the importance of cultural, technological, demographic, or socio-economic variables. Quite the contrary — great historians like William McNeil demonstrated that history was the one discipline that could effectively meld these perspectives to better understand a complex, uncertain world. To do so, however, scholars must actually engage questions that interest those beyond the dwindling, self-enclosed population of ivory tower historians.

Indeed, the pity of the present situation is that rigorous scholarship does not have to be antithetical to public engagement or relevance to current debates. Consider two other disciplines: Economics and the international relations sub-field of political science. Similar to history, both have become specialized and reward methodological innovation. Both, however, have managed to contribute to public debate and even policy without sacrificing their intellectual integrity. Top academic economists frequently serve in national and global institutions. The political science discipline promotes a variety of programs for its scholars to “bridge the gap” to the policy world. Yet because the historical profession tends to penalize rather than reward such efforts, it is marginalizing itself at the worst possible time.

Fortunately, other institutions have recognized — and sought to compensate for — academic history’s failures. Schools of international affairs, public policy, business, and law, and even political science departments, have hired leading historians working on political, military, and diplomatic issues. Scholars working in think tanks and interdisciplinary centers — such as the Brookings Institution and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs — have produced outstanding works of history that have reached a broader popular audience.

There is a limit to what these institutions can do, because many of them are not involved either in educating undergraduates or in training the PhD students who will be the next generation of academic historians. But these efforts nonetheless deserve to be applauded and supported. History, after all, is too important to be left to the academic historians. And if the United States does not reinvest in the traditions that academic history departments have left behind, declining undergrad enrollments will be the least of the country’s problems.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the historian Fredrik Logevall. 


Hal Brands, a historian trained at Yale University, is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies in Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order, with Charles Edel.

Francis J. Gavin, a historian trained at the University of Pennsylvania, is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the School of Advanced International Studies in Johns Hopkins University.

Image: Wikimedia Commons