by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
David Kaiser writes for the Martin Center about college students’ diminishing interest in studying history.
I taught history from 1976 through 2013 at Harvard, Carnegie-Mellon, the Naval War College, and Williams College. The 37 years of my career coincided with a drastic change in the nature of history as it is taught in our colleges and universities. That led to an extraordinary decline in student interest in history, reflected in majors and course enrollments.
In 2019, I published my autobiography, A Life in History. At the end of the book, I presented figures on changes in undergraduate history enrollments at a number of major institutions from 1965 through 2017. Harvard and Radcliffe together had graduated about 270 history majors in 1965, with about 30 full-time history faculty. In 2017 the department had 47 full-time members and graduated 45 history majors. Columbia history majors in the same years fell from 76 to 68 even though the graduating class increased from 569 to 1135. Swarthmore history majors fell from 33 to 22 (despite a 30 percent increase in the size of the class), and Wellesley fell from 53 out of 381 seniors to 12 out of 547.
In all those institutions, the number of history faculty increased, while the total number of students they taught fell.
I believe that the main reason for the decline in history is that students don’t care for the product the faculty is offering. Most history courses are now too specialized and often politically slanted to interest them.
The roots of what has happened to history go back to the 1960s, when the Vietnam War convinced a critical mass of college students that they could safely ignore whatever the older generation said. That war was indeed a catastrophe, but that single strategic mistake did not, as so many of my contemporaries thought, discredit the entire government, society, and intellectual tradition within which it took place.
Many, however, decided that imperialism, not the defense of freedom, was the basis of American foreign policy; that universities were cogs in that imperialist machine, not sites to pursue knowledge for its own sake; and that racism was fundamental to American life, instead of an aberration our parents’ generation had been working to eliminate.