‘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 (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Ken­neth Bartlett is pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Toronto.

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.

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