Amid national discussion decrying the decline of the humanities, Yale’s History Department is on the rise.
According to the director of undergraduate studies for the department, Beverly Gage, the department’s course enrollments are up by roughly 30 percent this year — making them close to the highest the department has seen in the last decade. The number of declared majors, which has been falling in recent years, is also up this semester, she said.
Students and faculty in the department pinned the uptick in enrollments on the department’s increased efforts at student outreach. However, some also suggested that this may be a reversal of what they described as a turn away from the humanities following the 2008 recession.
“What really matters about it to me is that we’ve actually worked pretty hard to turn this around,” Gage said. “The narrative, certainly since the recession, is that humanities are on the decline … I think this is just an indication that that’s certainly not the case.”
Gage said much of the increased interest may come as result of changes in the department this year, including the addition of several new faculty members and some new courses.
“Part of [the department’s plan] was to come up with more of a concerted plan to revamp the undergraduate offering and to make history more accessible without dumbing it down,” professor of history Patrick Cohrs said. “And I do think that what we see now is the first indication that [it] is bearing fruit.”
The department has also added “sexier” classes such as “Beer in American History” and “Sex and Violence in the Ancient World,” history major Conor Bagley ’16 noted. Classes like these, while perhaps not providing the foundation for a senior essay, might appeal to students who have never taken a history class, said history major Robert Peck ’15.
History professor Paul Freedman said the department has also made efforts to anticipate student needs by scheduling classes to avoid conflicts and by planning courses according to their expressed interests. For example, he added, current history students want more structure in their majors than students did in years past.
Some interviewed also said the uptick in enrollments might reflect the improvements in the national economy.
“I would say that more people are taking history classes than they were a couple years ago because the economy has gotten much better, stronger than what it was before the recession,” Bagley said. “And students feel less need to major in more ‘practical’ areas of study like STEM and economics.”
However, history professors at Yale and peer institutions were divided on whether this increase may come as part of a national trend towards increased interest in history.
Harvard History Department Chair Daniel Smail said that based solely on anecdotal data, such as conversations with colleagues at peer institutions, he sees this as a national phenomenon. However, William Jordan, Princeton’s History Department chair, said he does not believe this is a universal trend, despite a steady increase in history enrollments and majors in recent years.
Cohrs said that in general, history departments’ popularity is on decline across the country. He added, though, that Yale’s high numbers may be a sign that this is a problem that can be addressed.
According to History and American Studies professor George Chauncey, who had roughly 100 more students in his “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History” course this fall than he did last year, these rising enrollments are especially surprising given recent admissions trends.
“The increase in the number of history majors is all the more remarkable, because today Yale and other schools are admitting far fewer students who indicate an interest in history or other humanistic disciplines than they did just a few years ago,” Chauncey said.
Yale’s History major requires 12 courses, including prerequisites and the senior essay.