Commentary Magazine


Yale’s History Department Losing Students

Yale’s history department was once the flagship of the university. In academic year 1999-2000, for example, Yale had nearly 350 tenured faculty members, more than a third of whom were in the humanities. More than one-third of these, in turn, were historians. History was by far the most popular major.

How much a decade can alter the landscape: The history major is in sharp decline if not freefall with the slack picked up by the social sciences: political science and economics. History Department chair Laura Engelstein has said she wants to get to the bottom of the hemorrhaging program. “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 told the Yale Daily News.

The faculty has floated a few theories:  Frances Rosenbluth, an administrator for the social sciences, suggested students are attracted to the social sciences because students “seem drawn to questions about how the world works.” Some history faculty members suggested that perhaps “structural changes” could rectify the problem. The department has responded with cosmetic changes, defining “pathways” to better structure the students’ program.

Alas, the department appears to be missing the elephant in the room. History was popular when it was relevant. Back in the 1980s, when I first visited Yale, the department was at its peak, sporting such professors as Paul Kennedy, Jonathan Spence, Donald Kagan, Michael Howard, Gaddis Smith, Robin Winks, Ben Kiernan, and John Blum. Earlier stars included C. Vann Woodward and Firuz Kazemzadeh. Throughout the 1990s, when I attended Yale as both an undergraduate and graduate student, the department prided itself on eschewing trendy academic theories and keeping to the basics. “Theory is for those who do not have libraries,” one faculty member quipped. I believed it. After all, when in my freshman year, I took H. Bradford Westerfield’s “Introduction to International Relations,” the Iron Curtain had just crumbled but Westerfield could not be bothered to change his syllabus. It was a lesson on just how irrelevant trendy theories could be. Meanwhile, at academic conferences, history graduate students from other universities would sometimes quip that Yale sported the “Department of Military and Diplomatic History,” as if that were somehow a bad thing. Certainly, I gained exposure to economic and social history—indeed, my dissertation strayed into those fields—but more traditional methods always provided the framework.

Cracks began to appear in the 1990s. When the American political historian John Blum retired, he was replaced by a series of historians who focused far more on social history. As retirements and deaths took their toll, the character of the department changed. Social history became paramount. Englestein’s bio, for example, describes how she focuses on the “social and cultural history of late imperial Russia, with attention to the role of law, medicine, and the arts in public life. She has also explored themes in the history of gender, sexuality, and religion.” Asian specialists can pick from faculty members focusing in social and cultural history in pre-modern China or infanticide in Japan; whereas the new crop of American historians focuses on such topics as the history of home healthcare workers, “biological motherhood in America,” American Indians in northeastern United States, or race in California. As Paul Kennedy nears retirement, John Gaddis is the main exception to prove the rule. Regardless, their International Security Studies program increasingly appears to be a spin off, if nothing else to insulate it from those in the university hostile to grand strategy.

Perhaps it’s time for Yale’s history department to consider the obvious. They are losing enrollment because they have pigeonholed themselves into irrelevancy. Yale students are intellectually curious, but the department no longer provides them a path to satiate their curiosity. Not all fields are created equally, nor can one encourage sub-specialization endlessly within the faculty without hurting the cohesive whole.