Why the Best History Teachers in Your Department Should Be Teaching Freshmen

The number of high school students who want to major in the humanities is on the decline. 
The number of college freshmen interested in majoring in the humanities is on the rise.
Yes, you read those sentences correctly.
Here is some context from Inside Higher Ed:
A new analysis published late Monday by the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences may point to a key paradox for those trying to predict the future behavior of college students. The data show a decline in the proportion of high school students (as they take the SAT and as they prepare to graduate) who say they plan to major in the humanities. But something seems to be happening to those students when they actually enroll in college — and interest in majoring in the humanities goes up.
Robert Townsend tries to explain what might be happening:
Robert B. Townsend, director of the Washington office of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, offered a few theories.
One is that high school students are encountering “a Common Core era of humanities, very test driven,” that may not be encouraging the passion and excitement that the humanities disciplines generate with many others.
Then the numbers may go up once students arrive in college and, even if they don’t intend to major in the humanities, they take an introductory course to fulfill a general education requirement. “They are jazzed by it and it engages them,” he said.
If this theory is correct, Townsend said, it becomes more important for humanities professors and their advocates to focus on entry-level courses and to fight changes in requirements that allow students to avoid or have only minimal exposure to the humanities.
Townsend’s theory makes perfect sense to me. It also contradicts the way most professors think about their teaching careers.  We all want to teach the upper-division seminar to a group of advanced history majors.  The teaching of freshmen survey courses has long been seen as a kind of purgatory. If Townsend is correct, such a mentality just may be somewhat counterproductive. While upper-level courses are essential for delivering the history major, unless we get more freshmen excited about majoring in history there will be no one to enroll in those upper-division courses.

One thought on “Why the Best History Teachers in Your Department Should Be Teaching Freshmen

  1. By no means does this invalidate the proposition that history departments should find ways of getting its best teachers in front of freshman, but I have a more cynical take on the source of that trend.

    As someone who graduated from college just before the financial crisis ('07), I feel like the last of a generation raised on the post-WW2 expectation that a college degree will, no matter the discipline, give one entry into the middle-class. Of course, older millennials have been disabused of that notion since; it doesn't take more than a quick glance at generational employment statistics to establish that!

    But I find that younger millennials, especially those who started college several years after the crisis, have drastically different expectations. They are much more career-focused from the start, more likely to be asking themselves about future income and job prospects. Obviously public policy has encouraged that kind of thinking, nudging high school students to look first at STEM majors.

    But by pretty much any kind of objective measure, STEM majors are significantly harder than humanities majors. They are both subject to less grade inflation while at the same time requiring higher average GPAs to be allowed to graduate. I suspect a greater percentage of students today than a decade ago are being channeled into the relatively unforgiving STEM majors, take a class or two, and realize they can't hack it, and subsequently look for easier humanities majors.

    In other words, I'm not sure how much credit we in the humanities can take for the trend.


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