The Future of History

In the December 2013 issue of Perspectives, AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman wrote a very interesting essay on the future of history education in America: “Disrupting the Disruptors.” I couldn’t agree more with Grossman’s premise that higher education is a public good and deserves to be treated that way. Alas, as a recent report by the GAO makes clear, all across the country legislatures are inexorably defunding public higher education. And there is no reason to believe this reality is going to change.

In his essay Grossman also makes a strong pitch for the value of a traditional liberal arts education in the face of the disruptions in the higher education business model brought to us courtesy of those who would “unbundle” the degree. I too am a passionate defender of the value of a liberal arts education. I think that as a nation we are making a big mistake if we turn our backs on the value of the liberal arts to our economy, our political and social system, and to our citizens.

Where I have to part company with Grossman, however, is where his argument that an unbundled degree is “a narrow and often isolated experience compared to the liberal education that is available in the hundreds of institutions across the nation that offer curricula, rather than courses.” Alas, that ship has already sailed.

For one thing, history departments all across the country essentially unbundled their degrees decades ago. Last year I did a quick and dirty study of history major requirements at a random sample of institutions — large, small, public, private — and what I found is that history majors look much the same everywhere. They are, by and large, baskets of courses that students select from with the only thing approaching a “curriculum” are requirements that include a methods seminar/capstone seminar experience. Otherwise, it’s pick your courses, add up your credits, and get your degree.

For another, the view of liberal education as “bundled”, meaning students take all their courses at the same institution, is hopelessly nostalgic. Only a tiny number of students in the United States follow this path, and even those who do increasingly arrive on our campuses having skipped substantial numbers of our courses courtesy of the AP/IB courses they took in high school.

And finally, even if the disruptors attempting to eat our lunch with their new and more flexible approaches to course delivery fail, the rising cost of tuition at BA granting institutions, coupled with the truly excellent teaching happening at our country’s community colleges, is driving more and more students every year to complete some or all of their first two years of college at one of those community colleges.

Using my own, putatively low-cost, institution as an example, tuition alone for a full time student in the spring 2015 semester is just over $5,000 for an in-state student and a whisker under $15,000 for an out of state student. That means that before housing, books, meals, parking, and all the various fees we charge them, a full time history major will pay George Mason $40,000 if she is an in-state student and $120,000 if she is an out of state student. Just tuition. Our office of admissions estimates that four years here for an in-state student will cost around $90,000, while out of state students will pay around $170,000.

Our local community college, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), charges in-state students less than half what we charge, and out of state students around 25 percent of what we charge. Given the excellent teaching that happens at NOVA and these cost differentials, it’s no surprise that almost half of our undergraduate students come to us as transfers. And it will be no surprise a decade from now when something like two-thirds of our students follow this same path to our campus.

What does all this mean for History? It means that our departments are going to get smaller and our graduate programs, largely financed through the large enrollments in our general education courses, are in danger of running out of funding. Fewer faculty, graduate programs downsized or dropped altogether — that sounds like a calamity to us.

But to our students? Probably not.

What they want is a quality education that prepares them for life and for work after college. And if we are asking them to spend somewhere between $90,000 and $170,000 for a degree, it seems to me they have every right to this expectation. How they get that quality education that prepares them for a successful life and a successful career matters much less to them than the results do.

Fortunately, we don’t have to sit back and accept that market forces are destiny. But to change our fate, we have to change. For example, why not guarantee every history major an internship? Some institutions, such as our Virginia colleagues at Longwood University, do just that. Why not create some history courses that are more directly employment focused — such as training in digital archiving (a growth industry)? Why not develop a version of the major that is built around service learning, or environmental sustainability, or global engagement, or public policy?

Or, we can just keep doing what we’re doing now — offering lots of interesting courses that students can pick from, cafeteria style, with a smattering of required seminars — and hope for the best. Maybe that will work.