Universities continue dropping American history requirement as enrollment problems plague departments
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
Another university in the United States is joining the ranks of those dropping the requirement that their history majors complete a course in American history to graduate. George Washington University has become the latest university to drop the American history requirement. Less than a third of any of the universities and colleges listed in US News’ Best Colleges top 25 universities and colleges even require an American history course of their majors, with private colleges and universities leading the way, while more public schools maintain the requirement.
The issue, which is creating a new generation illiterate about the history of the very country they live in, was the topic of a recent report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni entitled “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major.” In universities’ attempt to give students more freedom in their education they are creating a new generation ill informed of the history of their nation and lacking the tools necessary for an enlightened electorate, citizens and future leaders. The greater problem, however, is the “dramatic” declining graduation rates in history degrees and enrollment in history courses according to the American Historical Association.
The 21st Century University is completing the process that philosopher Harold Bloom lamented in his 1987 book “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” In his book, which amounted to a manifesto, Bloom charged universities of a politically liberal agenda that deprived students of learning the humanities and the great books of Western thought and civilization referred to as a liberal education in exchange for self-interest at the same time failing its students. Bloom’s book and article that preceded it were inspired by the culture wars of the 1980s where universities were dropping other traditional requirements for their students and altering their curriculum that has continued evolved into the one common on university campuses today. Bloom was fighting a war on the elite universities particularly the Ivy League that he believed assaulted traditional education creating a conflict between “culture and civilization.”
Now universities are completing their war on Western civilization by dropping American history requirements from their history majors. University history education has been practically taken over by obscure areas and sub-topics focusing on social history versus political history, now global history is taking preeminence over studying American history or even European history. Long gone are the days when history departments required a foreign language component of their majors while theses are also mostly going to the wayside, now most universities just loosely require time-periods and general geographic areas.
Some universities still require their students to take a survey course in either American, European, World or another geographic location; others allow micro-histories to substitute or even allow high grades in high school Advanced Placement (AP) credits in US History to suffice. Some university history departments have geographic requirements, but they do not include the United States, some even require that students take specific areas from “African, Asian, and Middle Eastern history or in Latin American history.” In total 34 colleges have “general geographical-distribution requirements “that explicitly exclude the US.
When there is an American history requirement history departments are too “lax” allowing micro-histories, mostly social history which ACTA calls “trendy, highly specialized courses” to substitute. These courses do not as “KC Johnson, senior professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center” notes cover essentials for a proper historical perspective on the US leading Johnson to question, “What happened to fields such as military, constitutional, and diplomatic history?” In total, 11 history departments at the top schools allow students to fulfill American history requirements with micro-history courses that barely touch on the most important events and issues in American history.
Bloom was concerned even in 1987 about the lack of American history being taught, writing, “The upshot of all of this for the education of young Americans is that they know much less about American history and those who were held to be its heroes. This was one of the few things that they used to come to college with that had something to do with their lives. Nothing has taken its place except a smattering of facts learned about other nations or cultures and a few social science formulas.” (Bloom, p. 34)
Nearly thirty years later, Michael Poliakoff, ACTA’s president-elect commented with the same lament Bloom had, “Historical illiteracy is the inevitable consequence of lax college requirements, and that ignorance leads to civic disempowerment. A democratic republic cannot thrive without well-informed citizens and leaders. Elite colleges and universities, in particular, let the nation down when the examples they set devalue the study of United States history.” While Eric Bledsoe, ACTA’s director of curricular improvement and academic outreach noted: “It is the obligation of higher education to ensure that all students, especially history majors, understand their own history.”
ACTA’s report “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major” examined how or if universities and colleges require an American history course of their history majors. The report determined that only 23 universities or colleges in the top 25 of US News Best Colleges “out of 76 require a course on our nation’s history.” ACTA indicated of “Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: 7 require U.S. history, of the Top 25 National Universities: 4 require U.S. History, and of the Top 25 Public Institutions: 14 require U.S. history.” Private universities especially the Ivy League are the worst offenders with only Princeton and Columbia University requiring an American history course but Princeton allows courses that are “narrow in scope” and not comprehensive surveys that give the greatest exposure even if it is at an introductory level.
Without requiring American history in US history departments, students are left with nothing more than basic high school courses in American and European history that do not have the analytical depth of a college course taught by a professional academic. ACTA argues that without knowledge of American history, students lack the background they need to study other geographic areas. The greater problem is that graduates are ignorant in one of the most important roles they will play after their academic careers that of citizens and possibly leaders. ACTA pointed out that educating future “citizens,” “leaders” is an important part of many colleges’ mission statements including Harvard, and without an American history requirement the colleges are not fulfilling their obligations.
History departments are arguing that students are going to take American history whether they are required or not. The real problem is dwindling enrollment numbers of history majors, an issue the discipline has been dealing with for the past couple of years. Declining enrollment was the reason George Washington University got rid of their American history requirement.
Katrin Schultheiss, the chair of the GWU history department told the student newspaper the Hatchet, “I think the main gain for students is that they have a great deal more flexibility than they had before, and they can adapt it to whatever their plans are for the future. Whatever they want to do, there’s a way to make the history department work for them.”
For many history departments like those at GWU, funding is tied to enrollment, gaining more students is key. After the great economic recession in 2008 history departments began to see a decline in enrollment for history majors as did other humanities disciplines, students chose instead majors with a distinct career path particularly STEM, science, technology, engineering and math instead to ensure more stable employment after graduation. History departments looked to appeal to students and entice them to take a major in the discipline to keep up with the declining enrollment numbers.
The American Historical Association conducted surveys earlier this year that showed a continued drop in students graduating with a degree in history and that in general there was a decline in college students taking history courses. Julia Brookins, the special projects coordinator at the AHA, authored the results and suggestions to help curb the declines. Brookins writing “New Data Show Large Drop in History Bachelor’s Degrees” published in March 2016 in the AHA’s “Perspectives on History” looked at data from the National Center for Education Statistics and determined that there was “dramatic decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees in history awarded in 2014.”
History departments saw an unprecedented 9.1 percent decrease in history degree granted in 2014 from 34,360 to 31,233, whereas in 2013 the decline from the previous year was only 2.8 percent. The decline was disproportionate at “very high research” universities with 13.3 percent, whereas at liberal arts colleges the decline was only 2.6 percent. Although bachelor degrees granted increased by 1.6 percent, history degrees only compromise 1.7 percent of all bachelor degrees granted.
In general, there is a decline in the number of students enrolling in undergraduate history courses. Brookins writing in “Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses” published in September 2016 described the results of a survey AHA conducted of 123 history departments in the US and Canada looking at undergraduate enrollment during the 2014–15 academic year. The results determined that there have enrollment declines at 96 departments with only 27 seeing increases, 55 departments had declines of 10 percent and over. The decline was greatest at public universities and colleges with a median drop of 9.2 percent versus private schools, which only saw a drop of 7.6 percent. History departments seem only to be able to attract students to introductory survey courses with them only seeing 4.8 percent of an enrollment decrease in comparison to the more specified upper-level courses that have seen a 7.6 percent decline.
The AHA gave history departments some suggestions to increase enrollment with Brookins’ article “The Decline in History Majors: What Is to Be Done?” published in May 2016. The AHA looked to determine whether departments’ moving away from the traditional focus on the United States and Europe hindered enrollment; their conclusion proved the “contrary.” According to the AHA, “departments with diverse specializations ‘were more likely to have increased their share of bachelor’s degrees’ than those without them. Also, the analysis ‘found that . . . a wide majority of departments continue to list themselves as having a specialization in the US and Europe.’”
Part of the AHA’s recommendations for history departments looking to recruit students was to move away from relying on introductory surveys, and instead, add more diverse course offerings. The AHA believes that getting rid of “designated distribution requirements” actually helps attract students to the department. Prospective employment also has been an issue with history graduates, with teaching or going on to law school the primary professional goals for history majors not looking to continue graduate study in the discipline.
Departments also need to appeal to more female students as history majors tend to be still more male than female by a 3:2 ratio, Focusing on social history helps, but departments still have problems recruiting minorities, with 74.4 percent of history graduates being white. Departments veering away from American history and European history and towards Africa/Asia/ Middle East and Global areas is an attempt to appeal to minority students whose numbers are also declining among history graduates except black men where there was an increase of history graduates in 2014 up 4.9 percent.
To balance out the changes in requirements history departments are looking to instill core competencies of historical analysis, writing, and research, skills students can use for future employment in a variety of fields. GWU’s Thomas Long, “an assistant history professor and the coordinator for undergraduate advising,” says that is the philosophy behind the departments to revise their requirements. Long explained, “You should graduate with a history major able to do three things: You should know how we got where we are, you should be able to write, and you should be able to think critically. If you graduate with those skills, you can really do anything.”
Most departments see giving their students access to a different way to specialize as keys to maintaining and even possibly increasing enrollment numbers and student success after graduation. Unfortunately, as Bloom worried about nearly 30 years ago, it is coming at the expense of a traditional education in Western civilization, with American history the latest victim to the changing trends in higher education.
American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major,” July 2016
Allan Bloom. “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Julia Brookins, “New Data Show Large Drop in History Bachelor’s Degrees,” Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, March 2016, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/new-data-show-large-drop-in-history-bachelors-degrees
Julia Brookins, “The Decline in History Majors: What Is to Be Done?,” Perspectives on History,
American Historical Association, May 2016 https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2016/the-decline-in-history-majors
Julia Brookins, “Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses,” Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, September 2016 https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2016/survey-finds-fewer-students-enrolling-in-college-history-courses
Kate Hardiman, “U.S. history no longer a requirement for history majors at George Washington University,” The College Fix, December 22, 2016, http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/30469/
Scott Jaschik, “History Enrollments Drop,” Inside Higher Ed, September 6, 2016 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/09/06/survey-finds-decline-history-enrollments
Lily Werlinich, “History department changes major requirements to draw in students,” “The George Washington Hatchet,” November 13, 2016 http://www.gwhatchet.com/2016/11/13/history-department-changes-major-requirements-to-draw-in-students/
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor with a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.