What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–Part 5

Seminar Room

This is our fifth and final post in this series.  For previous posts in this series click here.

The stuff I wrote about in the first four posts of this series have left me somewhat exasperated. I imagine that there are several ways a historian could respond.  One could just give up–quit academia altogether or find other ways to explore the kinds of questions and issues that the humanities have to offer.  Frankly, I have been wondering for some time now if the kinds of virtues that the humanities bring to American society are best taught outside of the academy.

But I don’t think I am ready to give up just yet.

I’ve tried to respond to this crisis in several ways:

As a department chair I spend more time than ever recruiting students. The days of history majors just showing up at our colleges and universities and filling seats in our classrooms are over.  As I have written before, the practice of recruiting high school students to come to a college and major in history has almost become something akin to a college football coach recruiting a star player. I write dozens of hand-written notes a year to potential history majors.  I call them, I talk to their parents, and I try to give passionate and entertaining pitches at Open House events. I imagine that the next step will be visiting them in their living rooms–Bear Bryant-style– with a letter intent.  This takes a lot of time.

As the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have tried to devote a part of my work as an author and writer to making a case for history.  I have written about all the things one can do with a history major, the way history helps us to be better citizens and community members, and how the study of history can make us better Christians.

In addition, I have tried to get people interested in the study of history through this blog, through my work with K-12 teachers, through social media and a podcast, through books and written pieces in newspapers and other popular online venues, and through a busy speaking schedule. Perhaps I am being naive or tilting at windmills, but I think this kind of work might help attract more students of history and make some very small contribution to a more informed citizenry.

Is there anything else that can be done?  Maybe.  As I read William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life I was struck by his argument that the study of history and the humanities should not only be for the wealthy or the so-called “leisure class,” but for everyone. As a first-generation college student and the son of working class parents, my study of history has transformed me. Perhaps I need to do a better job of communicating this story.

In the end, my idealism is fading amid a healthy dose of realism.  I only have so much more optimism left.  Perhaps these five posts are my way of coming to grips with this change.  Thanks for reading them.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–Part 4

College classroom 3

Read the entire series and get some context for it here.

In Part 3 of this series I reflected on the meaning of college with the help of William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.  I highly recommend this book.  I plan to give it to my eighteen-year-old daughter to read as she prepares to head off to college in the Fall.

At one point in the book Deresiewicz says that religious colleges may be the only places where the virtues necessary to live a meaningful life are still being discussed, debated, and taught  (see our last post for his list of these virtues and my history-related supplement).

But as I have written in previous posts in this series, the numbers of history majors and, more broadly, humanities majors are in decline and Christian institutions are not investing in the field.  As a result, I don’t think Deresewitz is entirely correct about his praise of religious colleges.

Yes, there are examples of students and departments and administrations encouraging this kind of soul work.  Of course no administration is going to disagree with the idea that religious colleges need the humanities to sustain their missions.  But we also need to follow the money.  Where are the resources spent? Money shapes the culture and narrative of small colleges and universities.

A campus full of business majors and physical therapy majors does not necessarily mean that the humanities ethos of a small campus will be weak, but in most cases this will be the case.

Of course all of this is not new in an evangelical world that sends its children to Christian colleges.  Mark Noll has shown us that the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” has a long history.  Sometimes I wonder if it is getting worse, not better. But I also think it is unfair to apply the anti-intellectual label to Christians only.  The scandal of the mind extends to more than just evangelicals.

There are many ways historians can respond to this crisis. In the next post, I will explore some potential responses.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About? Part 3


Read the entire series and get some context for it here.

In Part 2 of this series, I tried to explain why so few undergraduates are majoring in history these days. In this installment I want to focus a bit on the purpose of college with the help of William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

Deresiewicz argues that students who attend elite colleges are like sheep.  They go to college to pursue careers.  As a result, they tend to major in finance, business, and other professional majors that will enable them to pursue happiness as defined by the accumulation of wealth.

He writes:

The purpose of college…is to turn adolescents into adults.  You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished.  That is the true education: accept no substitutes.  The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity.  If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed.  

Deresiewicz, who spent fifteen years teaching in Ivy League institutions, laments this trend.  College is now almost entirely about career preparation.  A four-year undergraduate education no longer teaches students to:

  1. wonder about the meaning of life
  2. think
  3. learn to care about ideas and make those ideas a part of their soul.
  4. build a self
  5. take intellectual risks
  6. develop habits of reflection
  7. stand apart, and if necessary against, the claims that others make upon you
  8. pursue a calling
  9. cultivate moral courage

I would add a few more history-specific virtues to this list.  An education in history should teach students

  1. contextual thinking about the world
  2. critical analysis of an argument
  3. that things change
  4. empathy for people who are different
  5. humility in our limited to know what happened in the past
  6. to make evidence-based arguments.
  7. that human beings are complex individuals

Deresiewicz has given-up on the idea that elite colleges will produce these kinds of graduates in large numbers.  He thinks that religious colleges may be one of the only remaining places in American higher education where this vision of college still exists.  Is he correct?  We will take this up on Part 4 of this series.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About–Part 2

Boyer classroomRead the entire series and get some context for it here.

In Part 1 of this series, I asked what historians should do when they no longer have students to teach.  In this post, I wonder why they don’t have any students to teach..

Here are some thoughts:

1. It’s the economy stupid. Parents are afraid that their kids can’t do anything with a history major. In this economy parents do not want to spend money on tuition and room and board at an expensive private college if their kid is going to major in history. This is an old story, but I am hearing a lot more of it lately.

2. Christian colleges are not very good at recruiting humanities students. Few admissions officers can speak the language of the humanities  This is largely because admissions officers are alums of the schools for which they recruit.  If the college does not have a culture of the humanities and is driven largely by pre-professional majors, admissions officers will make pitches to prospective students with the goal of recruiting them for specific programs and careers.

3. The pool of kids who are interested in the study of history and the humanities is drying up. Christian colleges and other small colleges, a lot of which are tuition-driven, are struggling financially. Many Christian college administrators are working hard to keep the doors open. In order to survive they must create programs that attract student (and parental) interest so that they can stay financially solvent.  These include online courses, continuing education programs, and cash-cow masters degrees.  Administrators also realize that majors like nursing, engineering, business, and other service-oriented majors fill seats.

4. Trends in evangelical institutions of higher education tend to mirror the culture at large. And the culture at large is not helping.  Barack Obama celebrates STEM fields. Governors and presidential candidates mock the humanities.  Americans, to their detriment, seem unwilling to invest in the humanities disciplines.  We are now largely educating 18-22 year-olds for our capitalist economy and not for our democracy.  If you think the 2016 election has been bad, this is only the beginning.  We will reap what we sow.

So what should be the purpose of college?  We will discuss this in Part 3 of our series.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–Part 1

Boyer Hall

Read the entire series and get some context for it here.

What should historians be thinking about?  I could answer this question in a variety of ways.  As an early American historian I could discuss the state of my field.  As a historian who is interested in American religion I could suggest opportunities for future research. As a Christian who has written about the integration of faith and history, and who will be the program chair of the 50th anniversary meeting of the Conference on Faith History in 2018, I could discuss the different ways Christians think about their vocations as historians.  As a faculty member and department chair at a small college I could talk about ways to cultivate a career as a historian at an institution where teaching is paramount.

As readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am interested in all of these things and hope to write more about them here and elsewhere.

But as I see it, to focus on these things in a series of posts about what historians should be thinking about right now would be the equivalent of arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

So here is what I want to write about:

What happens to our work as historians, the conversations we have about our vocations as historians, and our callings as history teachers and professors, when we no longer have students who are interested in the study of history and, more broadly, the humanities and the liberal arts.

From the perspective of Christian colleges, like the one where I teach, I think it is fair to say that the Christian liberal arts and the humanities no longer define the culture of our institutions.  This is ironic (and tragic), since the questions raised by the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, are the things that make the mission of a Christian college Christian.

And now for some evidence:

Robert Townsend of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Co-Director of the Academy’s “Humanities Indicators” project,  just released a study showing that in 2014 the number of history majors in the United States dropped 9.1%. This is the largest one-year decline in nearly forty years.  (I might also add that the number of Ph.Ds awarded in history once again rose).

A few years ago, when the number of history majors began to drop at my own institution, I took an informal and very unscientific survey of history departments among the schools in the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities.  (No, I am not willing to share this at this moment–you will just have to trust me).  My survey revealed that almost every school in the Coalition has dropped in history majors.  A similar informal survey among the church-related schools in the Lilly Fellows in Humanities and Arts Network revealed similar results.

When I arrived at Messiah College in 2002 we had about 100 history majors. We now have half as many history majors. The number of incoming history majors in the class of 2020 (incoming first-year students) is down about 75% from the class of 2019.  Ironically, this decline began as the department grew in the number of faculty and in the diversity of our course offerings.. The department also remains one of the strongest departments in the college in terms of teaching evaluations, advising evaluations, and scholarly production.

(Perhaps this bad news will help with recruitment.  Students can now come to study history at Messiah College and get a lot of personal attention from a first-rate faculty).

What explains these drops in history enrollment?  Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–A 5-Part Series

TidwellEarlier this week I was in Waco, Texas where I spent a day thinking together with the Baylor University History Department faculty and graduate students about the future of history, particularly as it relates to church-related colleges and universities.

In addition to the vibrant and intellectually curious Baylor crowd, I was joined by historians George Marsden, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, and Timothy Larsen.

Our host, historian Thomas Kidd, asked us to spend twenty minutes talking about whatever we wanted to talk about related to the state of the field, the future of Christian history, our current research projects, etc.  Each talk was followed with ample discussion.

Over the next five days I will be sharing some of the things I said on this occasion under the title “What Historians Should be Thinking About.”

The series will start tomorrow.  Stay tuned.