Where are we headed? Answers may lie in the past

The Great Recession saw interest in the humanities, such as history, plummet in favor of ‘practical’ college studies. But today’s turmoil may have reawakened interest in just how we got here.

Randy Hoeft/The Yuma Sun via AP
A student works on her laptop computer outside the Learning Resources building on the Arizona Western College campus in Yuma, Ariz., on the first day of the fall semester in 2018.

The trend lines in higher education seem clear: 

1. As costs soar college is becoming less and less affordable. 

2. And since college is so expensive, today’s students feel impelled to emerge with a degree that leads to an immediate – preferably high-paying – job.

That means old-fashioned degrees in the humanities – English, philosophy, foreign languages, history, etc. – are out. Areas of study that lead to jobs in booming industries such as health care (nursing is a perennial safe choice), and STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), are seen as the ticket to financial stability and success.

Students can’t be blamed for wanting to make sure they’ll be able to pay off the tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt that many of them will carry off campus with them. And they have every right to pursue a passion to work in health care, STEM, or any other vocation that calls to them.

But college students may have learned the lessons of the Great Recession of 2008 too well. 

Interest in majoring in the humanities fell dramatically. History majors, for example, became a rare species of scholar: After all, who’d want to look at the dusty past when the sciences are all about the future? By 2017 only a little more than 1 percent of college students listed history as their major, according to a Department of Education survey. The historical norm had been about 2 percent.

In response, history departments took to writing apologias for their field. For one thing, they point out, those with history degrees don’t do all that badly in finding work at wages competitive with those with other degrees – and often in quite interesting positions beyond academia, such as in law, journalism, and public service, for example.

While occupational and technical job skills are likely to be overtaken quickly in the future, the “thinking skills” learned when studying the humanities can last a lifetime, they say.

“Historians are trained to treat what they read critically. This means not just reading, looking at or listening to a source – whether a newspaper report [or] a medieval charter ... but questioning it,” writes Alice Taylor, who teaches medieval history at King’s College London. “A history degree trains you to ask questions of your material: Where does it come from? Who wrote it, designed it, wanted it? Who paid for it and why? ... In a world where fake news can influence elections, the methods of the historian – what history degrees train their students to acquire – are needed more than ever before.”

A nascent upturn in interest in studying history shows students may be buying her argument. At Yale University the top major declared by members of the class of 2019 is history; that hasn’t happened for a generation.

Why the sudden change? No one knows, but theories abound. With American culture in an uproar and political divisiveness rampant, students may be seeking a way to view events from a broader perspective. How did we get here? Have similar situations happened in the past? How did society deal with them then?

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” the saying goes. Knowing what has happened before doesn’t provide all the answers, but it’s a start.

Or as Winston Churchill, a historian who made so much history himself, put it: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

This long-range view is not just a valuable skill greatly needed by the upcoming generation, but by all citizens in all times.

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