History Dept. eyes reform

Photo by Antonia Woodford.

The History Department hopes to determine why the number of history majors has dropped significantly in recent years as it prepares for an external review next semester.

The University awarded 131 history degrees in the 2010-’11 year, down from 217 in 2001-’02, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research. History professors interviewed said the department is investigating the cause of the decline, but they and students disagreed over whether it should be cause for concern.

“We want to be reactive to any kind of changes in the undergraduate environment,” Steven Pincus, director of undergraduate studies for the History Department, said. “Yes, there has been a decline in the number of majors — it is not a catastrophic decline, but we want to know why that’s happening and what we can do to make the major more attractive to undergraduates.”

In February, a committee of professors from other universities will visit the department to assess its strengths and weaknesses and make suggestions for future improvement, History Department chair Laura Engelstein said. The department held its first meeting last Tuesday to discuss changes, and Pincus has assembled an advisory committee of current history majors to receive student feedback on the major, he said.

History has long been one of the most popular majors at Yale. It was consistently the largest major through the 1980s, 1990s and most of the 2000s, according to the OIR. But over the last decade, the number of political science and economics majors has grown as the number of history majors has declined, so much that in 2009-’10 political science eclipsed history as the most popular major at Yale. Last year, history was the third largest major, with political science first and economics second.

Engelstein said the History Department is aware of the shrinking number of majors and is considering possible explanations.

“If it reflects something that we could change, we would want to change it, but it’s not clear what exactly is causing this to happen,” she said. She added that the external review — which was not directly triggered by the decrease in majors — is an opportunity “to take stock” of the major and the department.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said there has been “a long decline” in interest in the humanities nationwide but that he believes Yale has still fared better than some other institutions because of its quality of teaching. Frances Rosenbluth, deputy provost for the social sciences and faculty development, said in an email that there is an upward trend in enrollment in the social sciences since students “seem drawn to questions about how the world works,” but she added that history is still “enormously popular” at Yale.

Engelstein and history professor John Matthews said that the declining trend in history majors is not necessarily problematic if it is a part of larger trend that they cannot control. Matthews said the department should not be worried if fewer students gravitate towards history because of a “change in fashion,” but that it should be concerned if it finds that the program of study is structured in a way that presents particular difficulties.

As it prepares for the external review in February, the department will discuss whether it should make structural changes to account for students’ interests. History professor Timothy Snyder said it is not always clear to students how courses build on each other and what class it may make sense to take after another one, adding that the department should provide more direction.

More generally, Pincus and Snyder said the department could do more to show students why a history major can be useful to them.

“History gives you a chance of not seeing everything as new, as unprecedented,” Snyder said. “History teaches your mind to see patterns, and seeing patterns is really important no matter what you end up doing.”

Pincus added that he wants students to understand that the department is “arguably the best” in the world and that a history degree can prepare them for any career.

Seven history majors interviewed said they did not see the decline in majors as problematic, unless it caused the department to lose funding.

While all seven majors interviewed praised the department for offering a wide range of courses, three said they think the department should offer more courses about geographical areas outside of North America and Europe, and two said the department should offer more survey courses.

But Hannah Gelbort ’13 said she thinks the requirements that students take courses in a variety of geographical areas and time periods are a drawback for students who want more specialized knowledge.

“Personally, I don’t want to graduate knowing a little about this, a little about that, and a lot about nothing,” she wrote in a Saturday email. Gelbort added that she got around this problem by pursuing a second major in Latin American studies.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Steering Committee decides which academic departments should be reviewed each year based on information they receive the departments about whether a review would be helpful, Provost Peter Salovey said in an email. About 25 departments have been reviewed by external committees since 2006, he said.

The History Department dates back to 1919, when Yale first created academic departments.


  • ldffly

    What I remember from my time is that most history majors at Yale were planning to go to law school. Later, I learned that students at other universities were more likely to use the political science major as the pre law course of study. Maybe Yale undergraduates have slowly gravitated in that direction. Who knows? With the changes in attitude within society since 1980, it could be that students now are more afraid of having that ‘useless’ history B.A. behind their names. In the old days, that history diploma could even get you a ticket to Wall Street if for some reason you decided not to go to law school. In those times, it was the Yale name that counted, not so much the field of study.

  • River_Tam

    Because the history major is good for one thing: getting a high GPA.

    With grade inflation, other majors are catching up.

    • Yale12

      “Because the history major is good for one thing: getting a high GPA.”

      Actual data doesn’t support this claim.

  • pineapple

    I would be interested to see the numbers for HSHM majors on this chart too. Maybe that is where some of the History majors are going in recent years?

    • 81

      I think that’s a significant part of it, I’ve heard that in the past ~10 years HSHM has gone from the 30th most common major to the 7th.

    • River_Tam


  • blah

    Strange. When I was an undergrad in the late 90s history was a top choice if you wanted to learn how to write and analyze humanities data, and people were drawn to it by the brilliance of the tenured professors (e..g Jonathan Spence, Keith Wrightson), the relevance of the material to present day issues (Amanat’s class, Spence’s class, Linda Colley, Gaddis), and the quality of teaching. And for those on this forum who seem capable of seeing things only in reductive ideological terms, there were plenty of pinkos and right wingers represented on the faculty.

    Poli Sci was an afterthought for me anyway because of the poor teaching and because the TAs were generally tools. Wonder what happened. Has the quality of the department gone down? Is Poli Sci now better? Econ always seemed huge, kind of surpised it’s gone up in majors. Maybe all the comp sci majors from the late 90s tech bubble have gone to econ.

    Weird–that’s a reversal of a 30 year trend. Would be interesting to hear the thoughts of a current undergrad instead of the usual alum trolls.

  • blah

    Thinking more about it, the world has changed so much in the last decade. I wonder if the history department’s strengths esp in regards to Europe are now perceived as less relevant. Middle eastern history was a relative weak point in the department. Again, it would be interesting to hear a current undergrad’s perspective.

  • BK11

    The answer to this question is simple: Go to the Registrar’s Office on Church Street and sift through the History course listings in the Blue Books of the ’70s, ’80s, and even ’90s. Plain and simple, the History Department was grappling with far bigger issues in those days than they are today.

  • student

    it’s easy– people go where the money is. And there’s just no living to be made in history these days, unfortunately. I think it’s a shame, but these are trying times. If my kid wanted to be a history major, I would be vehemently opposed to it– not because I disrespect the knowledge and experience that can be gained from it, but for purely practical reasons.

  • JohnnyE

    Because polisci is easier now?

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