‘Enrolments are on the decline, but those students who now elect to study the subject do so for reasons that validate the discipline itself’
The study of history in Canada has undergone fundamental changes since I began my career more than 30 years ago. Once a popular core discipline in the humanities, history has witnessed declines in both its undergraduate enrolment numbers and its coherence as a discipline. It has been partly reduced to a segmented study of other highly specialised but often vaguely defined areas that rely on social science methods and certain ideological assumptions, such as transnational, diaspora or gender studies.
Consequently, history is now spread among many departments, interdisciplinary programmes and even faculties. This has often proved a positive change, bringing varied methods and perspectives to the study of the past, and amplifying voices that for too long were silent or suppressed in historical discourse. But it has made identifying historians increasingly challenging.
Because securing reliable national statistics on history enrolments in Canada would be very difficult, let me use my own institution, the University of Toronto, as a source of some anecdotal evidence. As the largest and most respected school of history in the country, we currently have almost 7,000 separate course enrolments, from students who take just one half-course to specialists and majors. Although still respectable, this total reflects a long decline that parallels the flight of students from the humanities into other more “practical” subjects, a phenomenon seen in many other academic jurisdictions.
The causes are complex. One is no doubt a fear of unemployment or underemployment after graduation in a highly competitive world: a fear stoked by the popular press, governments and parents exercising the tyranny of the dinner table. Another is a belief in a technologically driven future to which only science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates will be able to contribute effectively – and who, as a result, will reap greater rewards. Previously, history graduates always enjoyed the option of careers in law, teaching and the Civil Service; but over the past decades an oversupply of lawyers has been trained, teaching positions in history have all but disappeared and government employment has not grown in tandem with the number of graduates.
Furthermore, the demographics of the student body have played a role. Toronto is one of the world’s most diverse cities, and the university reflects that diversity. Many historians hired decades ago qualified in an age when European history dominated the curriculum. Despite very active recruitment efforts and aggressive faculty renewal plans, this legacy remains – I am part of it – while our students are looking for areas of study that speak more directly to their experience. Then there is the issue of language. A great many students were born outside Canada, so they approach English to some extent as a second language. Many feel challenged by the sophisticated written prose style and difficult sources of historical research; they find the universal technical language of STEM subjects more accessible.
What I find most hopeful, indeed exciting, about my present students is that their diversity brings a very engaged and broader discussion to the classroom. Moreover, substantial numbers of students choose the European history that I teach because they recognise a need to understand the institutions and experience of the nation that they now call home; and I hear constantly that they want that rigorous command of language and research that history demands. So those students who now elect to study the subject do so for reasons that validate the discipline itself.
And despite the gentle decline in undergraduate enrolments, applications for postgraduate study have held up, representing a splendid pool of exceptional talent. Thus, a great many extremely ambitious and able young people continue to see history as a way of mastering the skills required to become articulate, engaged citizens and critical voices in their society. In a world threatened by populism, fake news and alternative facts, knowledge of history still remains a principal instrument to expose sophistry, malice and misrepresentation.