Historians Need Not Apply

Well-educated but barely employable: that description, which once would have seemed paradoxical, describes an increasing number of Americans. One of them is David Walsh, who has a PhD in history but apparently can’t get a tenure-track job. Until now, Walsh was best known as a far-left flamer on Twitter. But, in a cri de cœur, he let the cat out of the bag–how he really feels about DEI.

Walsh explained that he was a better applicant than all of those to whom he has lost out in the search for jobs, and concluded with this:

Walsh actually had sounded this theme before. This tweet goes back to the beginning of 2023. Walsh apparently is a person on whom irony is lost:

I suppose if you spent your life writing about white supremacy, and then realize that you can’t get a job because you are white, it could be disorienting. But I digress. Back to last Saturday:

Walsh immediately came under attack from liberals and, likely fearing that his academic career was about to end, he promptly recanted, associating himself with anti-Semitic campus rioters and blaming his plight on, among other things, “RW [right wing] assaults on higher education.” Right.

This controversy has consumed Twitter. Chris Rufo comments; you can learn more if you click on the various screen shots:

But I want to leave poor Mr. Walsh in peace and ask the broader question: what is going on with all of these semi-unemployable PhDs? A friend pointed me to this essay by Noah Smith, someone with whom I was not familiar. His explanation of the phenomenon is simple, and seems obviously correct:

History professorships are an extremely scarce commodity these days. Plenty of people are still getting PhDs in history, but ads for history professor jobs collapsed in the Great Recession and never recovered:

A lot of liberals are learning about the law of supply and demand the hard way. More:

Why is no one hiring historians? There are four basic reasons. The first and most important — which almost no one ever talks about, because it’s supposed to be so obvious — is that the U.S. university system is largely done expanding. The 20th century saw a massive build-out of universities, which required hiring a massive number of tenure-track professors. Then it stopped. And because tenure is for life, the departments at the existing universities are clogged with a ton of old profs who will never leave until they age out. New hires must therefore slow to a trickle, since as long as the number of profs is roughly constant, they can only be hired to replace people who retire or die.

The second reason is the funding crunch that hit universities in the Great Recession of 2008-9. That recession put a lot of pressure on state budgets, and spending on state universities was one thing they could cut. So cut they did.

Really? I would have to see that to believe it. Usually, “cuts” are smaller increases than some special interest desired. But who knows, it could be true in some public universities.

Those tuition hikes were poorly timed, because of the third reason no one is hiring historians these days: College enrollment itself is falling. This is partly because the number of young people in America has mostly stopped growing. And it’s partly because the financial benefit of higher education — the college wage premium — has been shrinking slowly since the turn of the century.

That falling premium is probably a good thing for the country — the likeliest reason is that we sent so many Americans to college that we created a glut of educated workers. But when a country has fewer kids facing higher prices for a less valuable education, you’re probably going to see fewer people go to college. And that means less demand for professors in general.

I agree that this is a good thing. Fewer college students and more apprentices and technical school grads is a recipe for economic growth and, as noted below, a less crazy culture.

But there’s a fourth reason that the demand for historians has fallen: College kids are increasingly avoiding the history major. History degrees peaked as a share of BAs right before the Great Recession, and their share has absolutely collapsed since then:

In general, students have been flooding out of humanities and non-econ social sciences, and flooding into fields like computer science that they feel offer them better employment prospects. History has been one of the hardest hit.

I don’t disagree with that, but I don’t suppose anyone ever majored in history, or English or philosophy–I was a philosophy major, myself–because they thought it was a ticket to a high-paying job. This author, who I take it is a liberal, doesn’t mention what I think is an obvious factor in the decline of college students majoring in humanities like history–the fact that they are now dominated by left-wing, Marxist, goofy liberal professors and textbooks who take the fun out of studying those subjects and, frankly, make them stupid. At most schools, smart students are well-advised to go elsewhere.

But Mr. Smith goes on to make a broader point that I think is important:

[L]ots of careers for educated elites — humanities and social science academia, law, journalism, and so on — started becoming a lot scarcer right around the same time. This inevitably led to a bunch of frustrated strivers with big expectations and no way to fulfill them. And that mismatch between expectation and opportunity, I hypothesize, fueled some of the unrest of the 2010s.
The theory of elite overproduction says, basically, that the educated elites whose career expectations can’t be satisfied will respond by getting mad at wider society and fomenting unrest. Certainly, David Austin Walsh’s contentious career as a strident social media shouter fits that prediction to a T. We are just coming out of a decade in which strident social media shouters held disproportionate power over our national discourse and sociopolitical culture. That was, frankly speaking, not great for America.

I agree. What to do?

So how do we fight elite overproduction? The obvious way is to just provide more careers for educated elites, but that can get extremely costly to society as a whole. Folks like Walsh have very narrow, specific expectations for their careers, and satisfying all of those would require shunting vast numbers of our most talented individuals into what are essentially make-work jobs. We can’t afford to pay everyone to be a tenured professor in the humanities or social science field of their choice.

Instead, I think that the problem calls for a shift in expectations. I think the Great Recession and Covid did help here, by disabusing lots of people of the idea that their life would be a glide path to prosperity, fame, and respect. So there has been somewhat of a reset there. On top of that, we should probably produce fewer PhDs in fields like history where academic jobs are scarce and private-sector careers are non-obvious.

More suggestions at the link, including this:

American parents should probably stop telling their kids that they’re the Smartest Kid In The World and that they’re destined for greatness, etc. etc.

Heh. Don’t hold your breath on that one.

But the phenomenon at work here–a huge cadre of well-educated people who think they are entitled to make good money, be treated with deference, and play a significant role in public life, but who in fact are not very employable and whose expectations are doomed to be frustrated–explains a lot about the demented quality of our current culture.

STEVE adds: This story is delicious, but also shows that parroting the cliches of wokery no longer works for white leftist academics hoping to get ahead in the world. I heard Peter Thiel once tell the story of being in tax law class at Stanford Law School with Prof. Joseph Bankman, father of FTX fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried, who remarked in class one day that in his opinion, Stanford should not hire any more white male professors unless it was an “emergency.” Prof. Bankman had not yet received tenure at the time he said this, but he obviously knew that the way to gain approval for his own tenure was to spout the emerging woke party line. But this tactic didn’t work for David Austin Walsh. Maybe he can find a job at a car wash or something.

As for the decline of history majors, my own extended thoughts on this can be found here.

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