Apathy is Boring: An Undergraduate Perspective on Low History Enrolments

Published on: 10 Feb 2020

By John Eigl, McMaster University

I first met John Eigl as a student when I was teaching assistant for Dr Stacy Nation-Knapper in McMaster University’s History 2T03, Survey of Canadian History: Beginnings to 1885. In the small tutorial section of about six students, John was one of two undergraduates in the course who was there to fulfill requirements in his future hopes of becoming a high school teacher. A couple of years on, John is now incredibly serious about the potential awaiting him in graduate school, hoping to get the chance to research, in-depth, as a historian.

The conversations on university enrolments in History programs are necessary, but they are often going on amongst administrators and professors. These folk are concerned, overwhelmingly, with “butts in seats.” Why aren’t the students in our classrooms being asked what motivates them towards, or detracts them away from, becoming History majors? With that in mind, I reached out to John to respond to the conversation. - Carly Ciufo

The 8 January 2020 episode of The Agenda, titled “The Undoing of History,” sparked debate on why History enrolment has declined. In his response, titled “History’s Reputation Problem,” Thomas Peace dismisses History’s negative image as being, “disconnected from the actual work of the profession.” I am inclined to agree with Peace, as I believe the issue with the current state of History lies in the way it is taught to students, rather than the way it is conducted at the professional level. Amidst this discussion, there is a glaring lack of input from those who are themselves studying History at the undergraduate level. While I do not represent all of my peers, as a fourth-year History student, I can provide a sliver of what this reality looks like for me.

In this episode, Steve Paikin comments that the average eighteen-year-old does not know who Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was. This prompted me to ask my eighteen-year-old sibling, “Who is FDR?” To my surprise, their response was, “Former U.S. military official, right?” As jarring as this was, it doesn’t matter who FDR was. What really matters is what he did and why he did it. After all, the point of studying History is not to merely memorize and regurgitate facts; rather, it is to learn to think critically and read between the lines.

Before a student can make meaningful use of the minute historical facts—the what and the when—they must first build a foundational understanding of the overarching themes of the history they are studying. Otherwise, these finite pieces of information fade away. As daunting as this may sound, instruction of this sort is achieved in some first-year courses. Lectures can present themes and context, rather than finite dates and names. In my lectures on Nazi Germany, it mattered more that we knew what the White Rose stood for than the names of its central members. Instead of consulting textbooks that no one reads, students should be asked what they know about the relevant subject matter in tutorial –whether it be fact or myth– and be challenged to think critically about it. Having this process led by a teaching assistant (TA), who is often more approachable than a professor, can provide evidence for the students to work with and practice the process that historians use. In my experience, these pedagogical strategies have held my attention far better than any others I have encountered in the discipline.

The first time I learned about the concept of “revisionist history” was in high school. From 2010 through 2014, my History teacher was Ms. Payne. She asked the class if history has changed. My gut reaction was negative; I did not yet understand what studying History truly meant. But, by the time I graduated high school, I understood that History is a constantly evolving practice. Despite the sometimes mundane material covered in high school History courses, the sheer enthusiasm and creativity of Ms. Payne inspired me to study History in university. I came away with an understanding that, once equipped with the “why,” it is possible to ascertain the “what” and the “when.” Beyond mere names and dates, I gained an introduction into the historical process from Ms. Payne.

In the age of Google, historical “fact” is always at our fingertips. It is more important now than ever for History students to critically analyze the information with which they are presented. The main goal of a History education is gaining the ability to reassess and challenge the arguments posed by our critics, colleagues, and predecessors; this is the only way to continue to advance our collective historical knowledge. In order for students to do this, however, professors must instill a sense of confidence in students and their skills. If not, they will never be able to intelligently critique other peoples’ arguments.

Unfortunately, the finite approach to historical instruction has lost sight of these goals, resulting in a pattern of apathy and disaffection amongst students. There is undeniable value in studying social history; we cannot truly understand the past without a knowledge of the world that people lived in and how it shaped their actions. But university professors must understand that some upper-year students have been learning about these issues since the turn to social history became popular. In my tenth-grade History class, Ms. Payne taught us how Canada banned Indigenous peoples’ dances in the nineteenth century. In a fourth-year seminar last term, we studied these bans in much the same way, consulting essentially the same documents that I have been reading since I was 15 years old. These documents are, of course, important to study, but rather than refining our analysis, we merely conducted a larger volume of reading. This failure to foster a level of analysis befitting the prior knowledge of students in the classroom produces little more than disillusionment among most upper-year students.

The seeming inflexibility of this style of instruction undermines the importance of this type of study. It prevents students from further refining the historical acumen we possess by fourth year. And, in discussing this with my colleagues, the detrimental impact that this is having on an otherwise critical form of study has become clear. A bored student is a disengaged student. As I have witnessed among my friends, a disengaged student is liable to abandon an undergraduate History program, instead seeking intellectual stimulation or a higher-paying job elsewhere.


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