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Academic History (and Higher Education by and large) is in Trouble
Faculty are Leaving even the most Prestigious and Respected Universities across the United States Due to a Lack of Appreciation for Historians and Their Craft
Historians in my position find themselves at a crossroads. In my case, I wonder if I should pursue my academic/professional ambitions even further by attaining my doctorate, or if—instead—it is more professionally sensible to continue with my current work as an adjunct professor of history at numeorus local colleges in my region. I feel very fortunate to be teaching history at the college level, as the field is competitive and the opportunities are narrowing. That said, I have had articles published in numerous outlets (academic and general), I consistently write for my own publication (the very one you are reading right now), and I have published two books in the past two years. I have much to be proud of and thankful for, and the continuing ability to teach college-level history is among the most prized accomplishments of my life and career. Nevertheless, the itch persists. An itch that could only be scratched by admission into a history doctoral program and the ulitimate attainment of a PhD, but would doing so be worth it?
Higher education across the board is struggling, and the field of history has been in a bad way for even longer (I did not pursue being a historian to be wealthy; I did so because I love history to my core). Since I am fortunate enough to be a published historian who is currently able to teach at the college level, and considering the sad state of colleges currently and of academic history for decades, does it make sense for someone in the field to pursue a PhD anymore? Going as far back as when I was an undergrad presenting my early papers at academic history conferences, PhDs in the field were telling me not to bother. One even said to me, “do a YouTube channel instead.” As interesting as that thought may be, and though there is some quality history to be found online, very little of it is of the rigor of academic history. Additionally, along with writing, I love to teach, and particularly to teach in person. Though I also teach online and have had great experiences doing so, there is nothing like communicating with a room full of students in real space and real time. That said, I am able to do that currently, without a PhD. So, what is one to do? I reached out to some prominent scholars (who will go unnamed, to protect their interests and associations) to speak to this question about the state of higher education, the field of academic history, and the future of each.
Does it make sense for someone in the [history] field to pursue a PhD anymore? Going as far back as when I was an undergrad presenting my early papers at academic history conferences, PhDs in the field were telling me not to bother. One even said to me, “do a YouTube channel instead.”
“Frankly, I wouldn't recommend [to anyone interested in the field of history] getting a PhD at all… I am not moving to another institution. Higher ed is circling the drain, and I've had enough of the toxicity, hypocrisy, and corruption. That said, I may seek an affiliation (though not a job) with one of several institutions where I have connections, if I need it. And I may look for a random teaching gig now and then. That is what I wanted to do all along--teach.”
The professor quoted above, expressing her frustration regarding the state of higher ed generally and the treatment of history prrograms by administrators specifically, also mentioned that in her case, having some modicum of choice (to change careers) is only due to the fact that “my husband recently became a physician. That he still doesn't make anywhere close to what the dean of [name of university redacted]’s College of Arts and Sciences makes is insane.”
This professor, whose name will remain off the record for the protection of her current and future career, is expressing something that scholars in many fields—and especially the discipline of history—have been feeling for years.
Now, it seems, we are seeing a reckoning. Universities have not given respect to their historians for decades. Falling outside of the current trend of STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and generally falling outside of the more questionable post-modernist studies fields (though not entirely, to be sure), academic history has been shrinking in numbers (including both faculty and history majors) for a long time. Furthermore, it is a discipline—though central to a liberal education and as old as higher education itself—that receives little to no support from college and university administrators. It is a field whose practitioners are so taken for granted that it is at times breathtaking. History, for now anyway, is treated (at best) as an afterthought. It is neither hip nor new as an academic field, and is thus given short shrift and nothing close to the respect it is due.
Another professor [whose name and position is also redacted here] at a prominent university in Washington, D.C., recently told me, “my instincts are that I will be departing, and possibly quite soon… I have some concerns about the long-term health of the university, which is why I'm seriously considering this option to leave.”
“Higher ed is circling the drain, and I've had enough of the toxicity, hypocrisy, and corruption.”
The trend is not impacting only the history field. Western Oregon University, for example, in 2021, began the process of retiring both its entire philosophy major and minor programs. A student can still take a handful of classes in philosophy at the institution, and two philosophy faculty (at the time of this writing) remain, but the entire major and minor have been eliminated. It makes one wonder: what exactly is the point of a liberal education and a liberal arts institution, if one of the most important majors in the history of academia is erased? Will academic history be next?
As usual, the excuses regarding the cuts to the philosophy programs came in the form of concerns over funding, etc. However, a number of the more novel (and no more professionally viable) programs, including the gender studies minor, remains. This minor, as it turns out, according to Western Oregon University’s website, “can be fulfilled with an S grade.”
What is a grade of S, you may be asking? In this context, S stands for “Satisfactory” under a “Satisfactory/No Credit” option, which is essentially a broad pass/no pass option for an entire academic minor.
This is what gets funding, attention, and support at universities. It should be noted that some of the courses under this minor include history classes, but the Satisfactory/No Credit option offered to students allows for a certain level of moral hazard regarding expectations of academic rigor and merit.
At the time of this writing, there is no light at the end of the tunnel regarding the state of higher education and academic history (or any other field, for that matter). The recent downturn in admissions across the country (sparked first, in 2019, by a thriving economy, and then followed by the impact of the pandemic in 2020 and beyond) was not, in my estimation, a particularly bad thing. After all, the truth was—and I had been making this assertion for many years—too many people were attending college in the 2000s and 2010s. Many people, especially young adults, were encouraged to pursue college merely because it became a cultural expectation and not because it necessarily made sense for all those who did so. The problem we are seeing with the state of colleges/universities and with certain disciplines is not explicitly due to this decline in admissions. If anything, this turn could be taken as an opportunity, if those in positions of influence would care to take advantage of the current moment.
Finally, after decades of too many people attending college and the most important disciplines getting ignored, those who are actually of a disposition to pursue a liberal education and those equipped with the expertise to bestow such knowledge could benefit from a paradigm shift. We continue to need STEM students, and that will not change, but we also need a new generation of historians to make sense of the world and the times which preceded us. We need administrators and institutions that understand this need on an academic level, and they need to similarly understand that the world always needs a class of people who know how to do history, so that the lessons of the past can be understood by nonhistorians in the present. Otherwise, what is the point of any of this at all?
[James M. Masnov is a writer, historian, and lecturer. He is the author of Rights Reign Supreme: An Intellectual History of Judicial Review and the Supreme Court, available here. His first book, History Killers and Other Essays by an Intellectual Historian, is available here.]