Why study history? What can I do with a history degree? Why is the history major in decline?
These three questions, or variations of them, seem to have been with us forever, or at least as long as I’ve been studying history (taking in college, that’s about twenty years). They’re the titles of campus workshops. They’re the focus of articles. They’re the subjects of blogs. And with declining undergraduate numbers again in the (academic history) news, they’re back with a vengeance, accompanied by related questions about the purposes and fate of the history PhD, the job market, the structure of the profession, and so on. They’re legitimate and important questions. I’m not sure, however, that the answers to them are connected in the way they are seemingly assumed to be.
To begin, let me offer a model of these connections, couched in the form of a set of answers to the three questions at the top. I don’t think any of my model answers are remotely original — if anything, they’re trite, to judge from how often they appear on history department webpages (more on this below). So in putting them together here, I don’t think I’m building a straw-man.
(1) The study of history provides essential skills such as critical thinking, the ability to read and evaluate textual and non-textual documents/sources as well as the work of other scholars, (insert passage about creating/using digital tools and/or managing big data and/or curatorial skills here, as applicable), and the capacity both to construct detailed arguments and to present them compellingly to different kinds of audience.
(2) A degree in history, therefore, prepares one for employment in a variety of professions that prize the aforementioned skills. Besides careers in academia (ahem), history majors often go on to further study or work in education, journalism, publishing, law, a variety of public sector or non-profit institutions (museums, parks services, heritage sites, etc.), and private consulting. Those with MDs can also practice medicine.
(3) In this light, the decline of history as an undergraduate major may be attributed to a number of causes, including tightening job prospects in pertinent fields, but also and importantly including (a) misperceptions or lack of information about the skills that the study of history imparts and about the jobs history majors are able to get with those skills, and/or (b) an insufficient focus on these skills either in history programs’ marketing material or in history curricula themselves.
What’s wrong with this? Studying history does hone these skills, and they are valuable (or, more precisely, monetizable). To use a key word in this context, history is “relevant”. And the more history programs enshrine these skills in their curricula and on their webpages, the more relevant, surely, it will appear. Thus the decline of history is, at least to the extent that it is a tractable problem for history faculty, a failure of student-targeted PR.
This might be right, but I’m not convinced. For one thing, it seems inherently dubious that any amount of protestation from historians or history departments about the relevance of their skills is going to reverse a large-scale trend against studying history; these look like phenomena of utterly different orders. As Julia Brookins recently wrote for the AHA, “the data we have cannot determine whether a hypothesis [about the cause of the decline] is supported by strong evidence”, although a mixture of “structural changes in… higher education and the national economy, local variables that reflect the consequences of actions and policies at several levels, and longer-term demographic shifts” seems to be at work. Better posters, then, are probably not the answer.
In any case, while it’s true that most departments remain shy about publicizing their job placement records, an emphasis on marketable skills already dominates history programs’ online profiles. To get an impression of this — I stress impression — I took a look at the department websites of eighteen different anglophone Canadian universities, and tabulated the reasons they offered for studying history. I classified the reasons as either relating to portable “skills” or to specific “content” or knowledge (even of a very general kind), and divided these in turn according to some frequently occurring keywords or families of terms and phrases (analysis, analytical, analyzing; critical thinking, reading critically). The results of this highly impressionistic survey?
First, on the seventeen department websites that had an obvious space devoted to “why study history?” or some equivalent question, the clear majority of reasons offered — by about 2:1 — related to generalizable skills rather than specifically historical knowledge as a reason for studying history. (Only two mentioned “citizen” or “citizenship”, once assumed to be a common justification.) There was some variety in the way these skills were described, and some poorly written websites made it a challenge to infer the specific skills meant. But to list only the reasons that were articulated or implied clearly on more than one or two sites:
- 14 out of 17 programs clearly identified “analytical thinking” (or a similar phrase);
- 12 out of 17 identified “critical thinking”;
- 12 out of 17 identified rhetorical and/or “writing” skills;
- 11 out of 17 identified skills in alternative forms of communication or presentation (usually speaking, where specified);
- 8 out of 17 identified research skills or experience as a benefit of studying history.
What about “content”? Many programs, predictably, were at pains to assure prospective students that history was “not about names and dates”; what is more surprising is that there was rarely any countervailing stress on historical processes, periods, or themes as reasons for studying the past. Indeed only about a third of the reasons posited suggested specifically historical knowledge as a reason for studying history at all. In broad terms, this is what they highlighted:
- 13 out of 17 programs clearly identified “understanding”, “explaining”, or “contextualizing” the present;
- 6 out of 17 identified preparing for, predicting, or “shaping” the future;
- 5 out of 17 identified understanding “how change happens” (or similar);
- 5 out of 17 identified exploring the “diversity” or variety of human experience (past) or human culture (past or present);
- 3 out of 17 identified making global connections or comparisons (past or present) as a reason for studying history.
What can we take from this?
The first point is that portable skills — analysis, critical thinking, and communication — are not only the privileged rationale for studying history, but apparently almost the only thing that most history programs agree that they offer. Even generic “research” skills, surely a marketable commodity, were touted by fewer than half the schools surveyed. None of these, it bears noting, are “discipline-specific” to history; numerous other humanities and social science departments — at least at a cursory glance (I have a life, you know) — promise to impart the same or substantially similar skill sets. So while emphasizing portable skills might make history sound more relevant to the job market, it also makes it painfully clear how dispensable history now seems to be as a distinct and unique discipline. These are skills that one can get in any number of ways.
Which leaves us with content. Here, the second take-away from my horrendously unscientific exploration is that the only specific purpose that historical knowledge is even somewhat widely agreed to serve is understanding the present; the next-most-widely-agreed purpose is shaping the future. If this sounds like bad news for those of us who study the world before 1945 (1789 for you Zhou Enlai fans), it’s not necessarily that great for the rest of the discipline, either. Because understanding the present is, again, not the unique or even the privileged preserve of the historian. Virtually every one of the social sciences — and some business and other programs — make that same claim with apparently equal conviction. Again, the flip-side of an emphasis on contemporary relevance looks like an erosion of any distinctly disciplinary purpose. To put it another way, the most popular responses to “why study history?” don’t really answer the question.
 Brock, Carleton, Concordia, McGill, McMaster, Memorial, Queen’s, Simon Fraser, the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, the University of New Brunswick, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria, the University of Waterloo, the University of Western Ontario, and York. Because of my focus on certain keywords it seemed sensible to limit my survey to English-language websites.