APUSH-ing people out of history

Viral Mistry, Staff Columnist

In my time at Case Western Reserve University, I’ve often received a diverse range of responses to any mention of the humanities classes I’ve been fortunate enough to take. The most common response, of course, has been “Oh, is that a SAGES?”

I hear it less often now, as a fourth-year student, but I still generally hear surprised reactions. Is it really that strange for a biology student to be interested in the humanities and take classes in them? I often push back against this line of thinking. Very frequently, I get the response “Oh no, I’m good, I took those APs in high school and didn’t like it.”

The Advanced Placement (AP) Exams, which many prospective students are likely studying for right now, are marketed as a way to help prepare high school students for collegiate education. A high score on an AP exam often allows a student to arrive at college with credit for some early prerequisites, saving time and money. As college tuition, especially at private institutions like CWRU, climbs astronomically relative to inflation, AP tests increasingly look like a solid investment. While a $94 registration fee can be a lot for many people, it pales in comparison to an equivalent course’s cost at CWRU, approximately $6,000.

I cannot and will not contest the material benefits of the AP Exams. But I will contend that they are an important part of why people are increasingly shying away from the humanities, especially history.

History majors make up an all time low percent of the students who graduate each year, and the number of history majors has actually declined, despite increased college enrollment. Of all majors, history has seen the greatest decline over the last several years, shrinking by over 20 percent in the number of degrees granted. Many have attributed this to the aftermath of the Great Recession leaving families with a focus on the financial payoff of a degree, making them unwilling to justify a degree that is perceived to be unlucrative.

I know first hand how much this infuriates humanities folk, who feel they need to constantly debate the value of their continued existence with STEM people who often mock them as being useless and unemployable. It infuriates me as well, and I’m certain it plays a role in the cycle that keeps students out of the humanities more broadly, especially at an institution like CWRU.

Part of what causes this cycle is the fact that so many students simply don’t know what a real college history class looks like since they’ve never taken one thanks to their AP credits. Associate Professor Peter Shulman of our history department has discussed this before on Twitter and was the inspiration for this piece. He found that in the last twenty years, the number of AP history exams taken in the U.S. every year has risen by about 440 percent, from about 200,000 in 1997 to about 900,000 in 2018. In this same time, we have seen stagnation and then a drastic decline in the number of history majors. I do not think this is a coincidence.

CWRU currently only requires two “humanities” classes for graduation. A very significant number of students here are able to go a full four years without taking a single humanities class thanks to AP credits. Even if they have space for it in their schedule, they might shy away from it because of a negative impression of the fields from the AP classes they took in high school. After all, it was supposed to give you a sense of what a college class is like, right?

I always like to blow people’s minds by telling them how different collegiate and high school humanities classes are. Most of the AP history curriculum, at least when I took it, was focused around memorizing terms, facts and dates and taking multiple choice tests. My college history classes, on the other hand, have been focused on learning about periods of time and social and historical contexts and analyzing trends and developments along different intellectual axes. It’s about studying and advancing arguments about what happened and why it happened. No history professor at CWRU has ever asked me to memorize a date or name.

I’m not saying everyone should major in history, but I do think more people would benefit from giving it a shot and taking at least one history class before they graduate. In research, I’ll be expected to advance new ideas and defend them, especially when they go against the grain. My biology classes, while important in establishing a baseline of knowledge, have done little to teach me to find my voice. My history classes, on the other hand, have made me more confident in my own perspective and refined and clear in my analysis. That will be valuable regardless of which career I seek.

After all, who could possibly have anything to fear from a thoughtful and informed public that understands historical context and speaks clearly about what they believe?

Viral Mistry is a fourth-year biology and cognitive science double major who is also minoring in chemistry, history and philosophy. He wants a world with more hoagies and less hate.