A Looming Disaster for History

In the April issue of Perspectives, Rob Townsend offers what is perhaps his last analytical article for the American Historical Association’s monthly newsletter (Rob has moved on from the AHA to a new job): “Data Show a Decline in History Majors.”

From the title of this post, you might be inclined to think that I’m worried that a decline in history majors is the looming disaster for history departments around the country. If only it were that simple. You see, undergraduate history programs don’t have an enrollment problem. We have a gender problem.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2010 just under 57% of all undergraduate students at 4-year non-profit institutions of higher education were female and the data for degrees conferred are similar. According to Rob’s article, fewer than 41% of the BA degree recipients in history departments were female in 2011. Our data here at George Mason are even worse. Female history majors represent only 40% of our total at an institution where 62% of our undergraduate students are female.

That yawning gap between overall undergraduate enrollments and history enrollments is the size of our gender problem.

The problem is bad enough on its own to require us to take action as a profession. In addition to the obvious need to do something about the relatively low popularity of history as a discipline among undergraduate women, we also need to fix this problem for pragmatic reasons. As has been reported widely over the past several years, institutions of higher education are increasingly enrollment driven. This isn’t news to private institutions who have been living and dying by their enrollment numbers for years. But it is a new experience for many public institutions, who only in the past decade or so have been learning what it’s like to live or die by the same data. In this fiscal environment, if we don’t fix our gender problem soon, history departments all across the country should expect to see tenure lines and other important resources shifting to departments with more robust enrollments — enrollments that will only be robust with large numbers of female students.

What is to be done? None of the answers are simple or obvious and there is certainly no silver bullet that could solve our gender problem in undergraduate history education. Instead, I think it is high time we embark on a sustained conversation about change in undergraduate history education — including changes that will make our discipline just as appealing as other majors are to the largest segment of the undergraduate enrollment on our campuses.

The alternative is to decide that history is doomed to be an ever smaller part of the undergraduate enterprise. I believe that if we really commit ourselves to doing something about our gender problem, we can and will find ways to change for the better. But we need to commit. And soon.

2 thoughts on “A Looming Disaster for History

  1. Gillian Kirby

    I found this interesting. Are the figures similar in other western countries?

    I’m an UG at at Macquarie University in Sydney and, although I don’t know the exact figures, just by looking at who attends my history classes it would appear that the majority (say about 55-60%) of students are female. Talking with other students I constantly hear how much the history lecturers/tutors are loved here. It is only a small history department here but I think the students like it that way – more easy to engage with the teachers.

    Part of the problem could be how history is taught in high school and what types of history are made more public than others. I didn’t take history in high school because the impression I had was that it was only about Australia’s involvement in WWI & WWII. I would have taken history had it been more focused on economic/cultural/social/political aspects.

    It was only after reading a variety of history books in my 20s that I realised how much I loved history but that sort of history was not represented on TV or the media. So part of the problem could be an image problem. Who makes history programs for TV? Is it equally split between men and women or dominated by men?

  2. Kyle Roll

    Dr Kelly,

    I found this post to be very interesting.

    I would tend to think that the problem with the decline of history majors tends to be rooted in the idea that students worry that if they major in history they will have a difficult time finding a job when they graduate college.


    Here is an interesting study done by Vanderbilt University about what careers there history alumni are working in. They also make some strong arguments about the value of a history degree. If more students understood the marketability of a history majors skills (strong writing skills, ability to conduct research) I think more students (both male and female) would pursue history as a major.

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