Responses and Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on the Decline of History Majors and Its Impact on ArchivesApr 30, 2021
This is the first post in our new series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives? Please email the editor at [email protected] with your ideas!
This post was written by archivist and COPA member Rachael Woody as a response piece to the recent articles published in November and December 2018 stating that the History major (as well as the majority of other Humanities majors) have reached a “crisis” level of decline.
The decline of students who pursue humanities education and the noted decrease of those who seek history undergraduate degrees has been a concern since the Great Recession of 2008. It’s recent resurfacing as a crisis in late-November and early-December 2018 is a direct result of Benjamin Schmidt’s report, “The History BA Since the Great Recession: The 2018 AHA Majors Report,” published by the American Historical Association in its series Perspectives on History (November 26, 2018).
In Schmidt’s report the history degree has seen the steepest decline among humanities degrees since 2008. Schmidt notes that the decline began due to the economic reality post-2008, but warns that this is not a temporary shift. He states, “That the declines have continued among students who entered college well into the economic recovery shows that the shifts are not just a temporary response to a missing job market; instead, there seems to have been a longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students.” He continues with indicating that related subjects that make up the majority of humanities’ degrees are also seeing long-term signs of decline.
Schmidt and others attribute this decline in large-part to be related to the inaccurate perception that there are fewer career options paired with concerns of less earning potential. In terms of “fewer career options,” there are actually substantial statistics out there that prove persons with history degrees are employable across a broad spectrum of jobs. The claim of less earning potential is viewed as more accurate when comparing the history degree against STEM fields; however, recent studies are showing that history majors earn more than other humanities fields, including English, psychology, and sociology.
So, what else could be contributing to this steep decline in the humanities? When interviewed by The Atlantic last August, Schmidt states his frustration with old tropes being “trotted out” to explain the crisis: student debt, postmodern relativism, and vanishing jobs. To the job aspect Schmidt emphasizes a critical difference in our collective understanding of why students aren’t majoring in humanities:
“Students aren’t fleeing degrees with poor job prospects. They’re fleeing humanities and related fields specifically because they think they have poor job prospects.”
But it’s not just about jobs. To think so would inaccurately simplify what is amounting to a critical, evolutionary shift in how we perceive the humanities.
In response to Schmidt’s report, Jason Steinhauer published a Time.com article on December 6, 2018, “Fewer Students Are Majoring in History, But We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Why.” Steinhauer recalls successful cases of history degrees rebounding at Yale University and also at Villanova University, where he is director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest. When Yale noticed a decline in history majors (historically one if its most robust degrees), they asked students about it. In response the students indicated that it went beyond perceived job prospects and earnings—they wanted a logical path to follow (through the degree and out of it) and a cohort. Interestingly, these are also the hallmarks of STEM programs. STEM has evolved as an educational program to provide a variety of pathways students can follow towards a degree and a career, cohorts are formed that build in support and community, and there are clear and direct entries into a variety of jobs.
From these recent articles there are two main calls to action:
- The perception of job prospects and earning potential for history (and humanities) degrees needs to be critically evaluated. In addition to gathering and publicizing statistics, an effort needs to be made to show clear and definitive pathways into a variety of careers that provide livable wages.
- The way history is offered in academic institutions needs to evolve in order to attract and retain students. A restructuring of how the subject is taught, the introduction of support and communities, the ability to specialize in non-Euro- and U.S.-centric histories, and the regular interaction with history (primary resources) as if it were a lab should be pursued.
Why is this important to archives and archivists?
The importance of the decline of history programs within academic institutions is two-fold for the archives’ profession:
- If the decline of history degrees continues it will greatly impact the pool of interested and qualified applicants into the archives profession. This could lead to the atrophy of the profession as a whole and impact the overall care and management of archives across the United States.
- If there are fewer history departments, history classes, history students, and history professionals, then there will be fewer people who access and use the archives regularly. Archives being used less will have a compounding effect that can lead to a decrease in resources for the care and maintenance of those archives.
The abandonment of the history degree is being tied to the perceived lack of its financial and societal value. It is not a big leap to then assume that institutions tied to the study of history—archives and museums—are also decreasing in perceived value.
We have some related problems to consider.
It’s no secret that many archivists are struggling within the profession. The recent Wars/SAA Salary Survey and resulting 2017 SAA Annual Meeting panel presentation revealed some depressing statistics on the health of the profession. If you’re thinking, “We love our jobs and aren’t in it to make money,” you’re right about one thing: We aren’t in it to make money. However, the assertion that we love our jobs is complicated by the documented and concerning levels of mental (and, I would argue, physical) health issues archivists have developed as a result of their employment in the profession.
There’s also the, in my opinion, unethical predominance of unpaid internships and their inherent classism, the lack of availability of livable-wage entry-level jobs for graduate students, and the atrophy of mid-career jobs that are directly contributing to the overall devaluation from within the profession to address. From 2000, 2010, and 2015, SAA has published three separate articles in American Archivist studying the issue of the entry-level job market graduates face and revealing that inadequate salary is the number one or two reason archivists leave the profession. Across all three articles (spanning 15 years) these statements repeatedly occur:
- Given cost of living, professional experience, and job scope, less than half of respondents indicated that their salary was “enough”
- Due to the higher number of temporary and part-time positions paired with the evaluation that archivist salaries are insufficient in the majority of cases, many are leaving the archives profession
- Two of the three studies (2000 and 2010) directly state that salary is one of the top reasons given for leaving the profession
Given that the cost of education to become an archivist is only increasing, it is understandable that many looking to join or who have recently joined the profession are alarmed at archivists’ relatively low salaries. And this isn’t just a problem for recent graduates, though much of what could be stated is only anecdotal as there’s not been an SAA census since the 2006 A*CENSUS. Much has changed in the last 12 years, from technology becoming an integrated part of archivist’s jobs to the continued impact of the 2008 recession.
5 things we can work on right now.
Both issues—the decline of history majors and the atrophy of the archives profession—are rooted in the fundamental belief that those things are no longer as valuable as they used to be. While either point can be argued, that doesn’t change the actions that can and should to be taken:
- Reduce the cost of education (debt) and/or increase the entry-level archivist salary so that the return on investment (ROI) increases
- Increase the perceived and actual value of archivists by paying commensurate salaries, paying interns, and ceasing the practice of temporary positions in place of permanent positions
- Frequently and voraciously speak to the value of the study of history, archives, and archivists
- Find ways to increase the intangible benefits of the job to increase the job satisfaction and overall health of archivists as people
- Be better as a profession about gathering statistics more frequently and take steps to implement improvements stated in the census reports
In the end, we are in this job because we value history. I’m a big believer on change coming from within. If, through our conscious actions we can become better at valuing archives, our fellow archivists, and ourselves, we can return value to the profession. By upholding the value of archives and archivists from within the profession, we can influence external audiences and how they value archives and archivists.
 Schmidt’s report relies on data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), with the most recent data available from 2017. Benjamin M. Schmidt, “The History BA Since the Great Recession: The 2018 AHA Majors Report,” Perspectives on History (November 26, 2018), accessed December 8, 2018.
 Paul B. Sturtevant, “History is Not a Useless Major: Fighting Myths with Data,” Perspectives on History (April 1, 2017) accessed December 8, 2018.
 Elizabeth Yakel, “The Future of the Past: A Survey of Graduates of Master’s-Level Archival Education Programs in the United States,” American Archivist 63:2 (Fall/Winter 2000), 301–321.
 Amber L. Cushing, “Career Satisfaction of Young Archivists: A Survey of Professional Working Archivists, Age 35 and Under,” American Archivist 73:2 (Fall/Winter 2010), 600–625.
 Matthew R. Francis, “2013 Archival Program Graduates and the Entry-Level Job Market,” American Archivist 78:2 (Fall/Winter 2015), 514–547.
 Victoria Irons Walch, Nancy Beaumont, Elizabeth Yakel, Jeannette Bastian, Nancy Zimmelman, Susan Davis, and Anne Diffendal, “A*CENSUS (Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States),” American Archivist 69:2 (Fall/Winter 2006), 291–419.
 The author notes that there were recommended actions provided “A*CENSUS (Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States),” American Archivist, that were not (noticeably) implemented; such as the call for conducting surveys every 10 years.
This post was written by Rachael Cristine Woody, a member of The Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness (COPA). The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.
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