Another Big Drop in History Majors: Yes, This Is Still Happening

The world has much bigger problems, but this still bothers me. Last time I looked at this data I wasn’t surprised to see a decline;
I was surprised at how large it was. But maybe that 9 percent drop in history majors between 2013 and 2014 wasn’t aberration after all? Maybe we should have seen it coming as early as 2010, when it became clear that the history major at the big research universities was trending down. Or when it became clear that the “market share,” the percentage of all bachelors degrees that are history degrees, was in a noticeable decline—that’s been going on for almost ten years now. Regardless, now we are here: between academic years ending in 2014 and 2015, the number of bachelor’s degrees in history dropped by 9 percent, for the second year in a row.

Charts below are highly interactive, so rather than having to read my long, dull rundown of all the different breakdowns, you can explore, ask questions, and tell me what you find.

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“They Only Understand Force” Say People Who Don’t Understand History

Updating my little project that tracks the uses and misuses of history by politicians and their ilk, I found what is probably the most vile statement in my collection, and yes it is from Trump.

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Politifact has done us all a great service by talking to eight historians about this nonsense, which seems to have come from an email meme. Meaning that it won’t go away, ever.

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924 Times Politifact Ruled on a Historical Statement, in One Chart (bonus charts included)

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Update, 2/26/16: New statements added, including the worst. Also, the Supreme Court vacancy and more Ronald Reagan. Now 938 statements. 

Politifact is perhaps never better than when it dives deep into a historical statement made by a politician or partisan commentator, cuts through the chaff, gathers expert opinions, and delivers a satisfying final judgement ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire!” Some might accuse them of dismissing all the nuance and uncertainty of historical knowledge in favor of their clean and clear rating system, but when a politico claims that “The Taliban have been there for …  hundreds of thousands of years” or that the founding fathers were actively involved in cockfighting or that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican (again, and again), nuance isn’t really necessary.

I started collecting Politifact rulings of historical statements not just for the satisfaction of seeing abusers of history called out, but to explore how politicians and their supporters use history. My selection is an unscientific sample of Politifact’s unscientific sample, but exploring these statements through visualizations was highly entertaining and caused a few questions to jump out. Why are the discussions of taxes, budgets, and debt so prone to historic comparison and hyperbole? Why would historical arguments appear so frequently in discussions about education? How many times will Politifact have to refute the claim that the Civil War was “not about slavery?”

A word about the data before we cut to the charts.

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More History PhDs (Again) but Fewer with Jobs out of the Gate (Again)

In contrast to the declining number of bachelors degrees in history, the number of PhDs in history continues to rise, according to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). I’ve updated 2013’s visualizations with numbers covering those who graduated in 2014 (released last month). The updates are below, with a few brief comments.

  • The 2014 survey shows the gap between those who have definite employment and those still seeking a job widening dramatically. Nearly 46 percent of new history PhDs were still seeking employment at the time they took the survey. Only 37 percent had definite jobs. In 2013 the difference in percentages was less than one percent.

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Other Humanities Subjects Lost Majors Too, but History Lost More

HistTreeAfter seeing the surprisingly steep drop in the number of history bachelors degrees awarded in the academic year ending in 2014 (post and viz here), I wanted to compare history to other humanities and social science subjects. After carving out some time during the holidays, I did, and found that yes, these subjects also lost students. But the loss experienced by the history discipline was still exceptional.

The first chart below shows the percent change in the number of graduates between AY 2013 and 2014 for several majors. All of these humanities and social science subjects lost students (and I threw in psychology and communication/ media studies for comparison). History’s 9 percent drop, however, is more than twice the average drop for humanities/social science subjects.

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Big Slide for the History BA?

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in history went down again. The latest data covers the academic year ending in 2014, so many teachers and administrators have already noticed fewer history majors in their departments. The downward trend is in its third year, so an uptick would have been a pleasant surprise and the downturn is no surprise at all.

But the magnitude of the decline is a shock. If the numbers are right and if I’ve run them correctly, history departments graduated roughly 3,400 fewer students in AY 2013-14 than in the previous year. That’s a 9 percent decline, and it’s surprising because no year-over-year change in the last 15 years—up or down—has come close to being this large. And if we look at the number of history undergrad degrees as a percentage of all bachelors degrees, we see a slide that started in 2007 and has continued into 2014–a year in which history majors claimed only 1.73 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.

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Visualizing the Specializations of Historians: An Experiment with Networks

ishot-7This starburst is the result of an experiment in visualizing the relationships between history specializations. The circles (or nodes) represent specializations, and are colored and sized by the number of historians in my sample who claimed that specialization. The lines (or edges) represent a connection between subfields, and are sized and colored by the number of historians who specialize in both of the connected specializations. The resulting network is beautifully dense with connections, and by plotting it in Tableau Public, we can explore this universe with filters, zooming, and highlighting (more information and instructions are below the viz. If the filters are slow, you can download the whole thing and open on your own computer with a free copy of Tableau Reader).

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More World, Less Europe: More on the New PhDs from the SED

Update: I’ve added data from the 2014 survey, released in December 2015, to the visualizations below. It looks like “Africa” did not make the cut as a category in this year, which makes this analysis difficult. Likely the number was small enough to be suppressed to maintain privacy. 

I’m reading Lynn Hunt’s Writing History in the Global Era, which frequently reflects on the geographical broadening of research interests among historians (documented by Robert Townsend here and here, for example). And I was impressed to learn (via HNN) that, in Ohio, Republican State Senator Frank LaRose shepherded a bill to require high school students to take a course in world history before graduation (according to the Plain Dealer, LaRose noted the United States’ mere 4 percent share of the world population and added, “The other 96 percent have a rich history the students need to understand”).

Along similar lines, the latest data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates suggests that more history students are writing their dissertations on parts of the world that are not the United States or Europe. But it also shows that this is a slowly developing trend, and that the allure of studying the history of one’s own country (one that’s been investigated here) isn’t going away.

Rather, it appears that more new PhDs specializing in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa means proportionally fewer students pursuing topics in European history.

  • In 1994, 39 percent of new history PhDs specialized in histories of the US or Canada. In 2013, after a little variation during the intervening 20 years, it was still 39 percent (see the purple bars below).
  • In 1994, 23 percent of new history PhDs specialized in European history. The proportion peaked in 1997 at 26 percent. In 2013, it hit a low of 16 percent (see the green bars below).

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History PhDs and Their Plans: An Unhappy Milestone in the SED Report

Update: I’ve added the 2014 survey data, released in December 2015, to the visualizations below. The post covering this data is here.

Is it bad luck to start a new blog with bad news? Looks like we will find out. As has been noted elsewhere, new data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates is not encouraging. For humanities PhDs,  it contains a grim milestone. A multiyear trend, which saw the proportion of humanities graduates who had definite employment falling and the proportion of job seekers rising, has come to this: In academic year 2012-13 there were more job seekers than those with definite employment.

Humanities being a broad category,  I wanted to see how well historians fared (I’m ABD in history but not headed toward an academic job). The chart below tells the story.

(Use filters on the side to compare humanities fields. More charts below or in the full post.)

Source: Survey of Earned Doctorates. Percentages based on total responses.

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