History is dying at U.S. colleges and universities. Enrollment in history courses is plummeting, and so is the number of history degrees awarded annually. The most recent data show a 9% nationwide drop in history degrees awarded in 2014 compared to 2013, with an even sharper 13% decline at the nation’s top universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. So, is history just getting old?
On the contrary. At least outside of academia, history has never been more popular. The History Channel has enjoyed a resurgence in viewership since 2013, and judging by the reception of more epic productions, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical Hamilton in 2015, it’s clear that public hunger for history is only growing. What, then, accounts for lackluster lecture hall attendance?
“Part of the problem is that much of academic history has become too esoteric,” says podcaster Brad Harris, who holds a PhD from Stanford in the history of science and technology. “Course content has been shifting away from big ideas like the rise of modern science and democracy to narrower studies of things like food politics and cultural constructions, which many students find less relevant to their interests.” Moreover, Harris contends that college history courses have never been more cynical. “Too many professors dwell on what humanity has done wrong–who we’ve oppressed, what we’ve destroyed–and not enough on what humanity has done right–who we’ve liberated, what we’ve invented. Where’s the inspiration? It’s no wonder people are ditching history lectures.” And now, so has Brad Harris.
Since leaving academia in 2015, Harris has been working full time to offer a better way to teach history, providing content that is just as informative and rigorously researched as a college lecture but just as entertaining as a cinematic production: a new podcast called How It Began: A History of the Modern World. Other history podcasts simply replicate conventional lectures. But not this one; through his finely tuned scripts, exceptional production values, and creative tenacity, Harris establishes a truly immersive audio experience that sets How It Began apart.
How It Began debuted March 31st on iTunes, Stitcher, and over a dozen other podcast platforms, and new episodes are released every two weeks. Each show is about 30 minutes long and highlights the history behind a major achievement of modernity. As a professional historian armed with a sonorous voice that reviewers describe as “liquid chocolate,” Brad Harris combines gripping storytelling with sophisticated music and sound effects to impart a refreshing, not to mention addictive, new standard in how we learn history. From technological breakthroughs like the development of electricity, to medical advancements like safe and painless surgery, Harris hopes his show’s focus on modern innovation will captivate people who crave more inspiring academic history. Already boasting dozens of 5-star reviews on iTunes less than two months after debuting, How It Began is well on its way to achieving exactly that.