Having ignored questions of economic inequality for decades, economists and other scholars have recently discovered a panoply of effects that go well beyond the fact that some people have too much money and many don’t have enough. Inequality affects our physical and mental health, our ability to get along with one another and to make our voices heard and our political system accountable, and, of course, the futures that we can offer our children. Lately, I’ve noticed a feature of economic inequality that has not received the attention it deserves. I call it “intellectual inequality.”
I do not refer to the obvious and ineluctable fact that some people are smarter than others but, rather, to the fact that some people have the resources to try to understand our society while most do not. Late last year, Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, published a study demonstrating that, for the past decade, history has been declining more rapidly than any other major, even as more and more students attend college. With slightly more than twenty-four thousand current history majors, it accounts for between one and two per cent of bachelor’s degrees, a drop of about a third since 2011. The decline can be found in almost all ethnic and racial groups, and among both men and women. Geographically, it is most pronounced in the Midwest, but it is present virtually everywhere.
There’s a catch, however. It’s boom time for history at Yale, where it is the third most popular major, and at other élite schools, including Brown, Princeton, and Columbia, where it continues to be among the top declared majors. The Yale history department intends to hire more than a half-dozen faculty members this year alone. Meanwhile, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, Bernie L. Patterson, recently proposed that the school’s history major be eliminated, and that at least one member of its tenured faculty be dismissed. Of course, everything gets more complicated when you look at the fine print. Lee L. Willis, the chair of the history department, told me that the chancellor’s proposal is a budget-cutting measure in response to the steadily declining number of declared majors, but it’s really about the need to reduce the faculty from fourteen to ten, and this means getting rid of at least one tenured member. To do that, it’s necessary to disband the department. (A spokesperson for the university said that “UW-Stevens Point is exploring every option to avoid laying off faculty and staff members.”) The remaining professors will be placed in new departments that combine history with other topics.