On "The History BA since the Great Recession"
To the Editor:
I write in response to “The History BA since the Great Recession,” by Benjamin Schmidt (December 2018). As a historian and a father of two teenagers, I was surprised that Schmidt considered only future or present factors in students’ choice to major in history. While those are important, they seem less so at the type of universities where the greatest downward trends are seen: “private, not-for-profit” institutions. Since these are the type of places to which my children aspire, I looked to the ways that history is taught in our typical high school, and especially in its AP courses. It is my impression that the history pipeline and students’ consideration of their past experiences when arriving at college further contribute to the decline in majors.
Typically, those private, not-for-profit schools recruit high achievers, but current curricula are not designed to lead such students to the humanities. Witness the complaints by admissions officers in the Harvard court battle about the lack of applicants who excel in that area. Indeed, looking at my daughters’ peers, I can see that high-achieving students—whether by choice or by design—are increasingly pushed toward the STEM fields. State requirements for history education have been reduced in recent years, too, leaving students with the obligation to complete only two years of coursework (at least in Michigan).
Those students who do continue to study history after their requirements are fulfilled, such as my children, take the AP courses their schools offer—if only to keep up with their hyper-competitive peers. Here again we see problems for future majors: it is little wonder that the type of students who strive to master the absurdly vast curriculum for AP World History or the minutiae demanded in AP European History desist in their studies. I would, too, if I had to cram my mind full of trivial details and make forced comparisons of disparate periods, civilizations, and individuals so that I could do well on a timed test. AP coursework therefore also bears the blame for our downturn: it does not inspire interest in history; it reduces vast segments of the past to a high-stakes version of an online trivia game; it so homogenizes different eras for the sake of comparison so as to render them indistinct.
For me, the worst part of this pipeline problem is that I cannot fix it, not even in my own home. In my World History and European History classes, I can adapt my syllabi to my interests and those of my students. But for my daughters, I have to toe the AP line, even when it is manifestly wrong. And so I help them study, angry at the damage that the AP curriculum is doing to the subject that I love, but remaining silent about my objections to its form and content. The last thing I would want to do is to jeopardize their chances of getting into an elite college . . .
Liam Matthew Brockey
Michigan State University
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