Want to Save the Humanities? Make College Free.

It's time to shift the social contract of education away from short-term job training toward long-term development. And free college has to be part of that shift.
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The Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

The Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

"I'm a student of history," President Donald Trump said in late April, as he defended his record in the White House. Then he went on to praise the traitor Robert E. Lee as a great general (Lee was many things, but not a great general). It’s hard to picture Trump studying anything or even reading a book, but his presidency certainly has made the importance of history itself vividly clear—not history as a collection of facts about the past, but as an active, interpretative discipline. At the same time, students are leaving the academic major in droves.

Is it too late to save history?

Recent data showing that enrollment in history is declining more quickly than those in other humanities disciplines has sparked a new round of exhortations to make history great again. Mostly white, mostly male pundits have offered two main solutions: Teach more white male history, and reclaim relevance by engaging in public debates. These are both canards: Historians are teaching plenty of history on the topics formerly known as "Western civilization," and we're in a veritable golden age of public engagement. Instead, our solutions to declining enrollment have to be more structural. Academics and their allies need to advocate for a fundamental shift in the social contract around the nature of higher education, moving it away from short-term job training to long-term career development and genuine pursuit of one's interests. In other words, the only way to save the discipline of history is by making college free.

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Last winter, Washington Post columnist Max Boot blamed the discipline's decline on its failure to focus more heavily on military and diplomatic history, and named as models six white male historians he had admired during his time as both an undergraduate and graduate student at Yale University. Boot argues that history has turned too far toward emphasizing the histories of oppressed and underrepresented groups, alongside culture, gender, and other (supposedly) non-political topics. This emphasis had led to "the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history—subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect." Boot does not provide evidence of student desire, nor of university neglect.

There's nothing new about Boot's argument. In a 2016 New York Times op-ed, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, both political historians, lamented the decline of political history as a sub-field. The authors acknowledged that history has become a more commodious and diverse discipline, but implicit in their essay is the idea that political history is more important because of its direct applicability to ongoing events. To their credit, Logevall and Osgood both recognize the obstacle of shrinking academic budgets, but they still imply a connection between the shifting course content and these departments' financial difficulties.

Also in 2016, Niall Ferguson received an award for service to the humanities and delivered an acceptance speech called "The Decline and Fall of History." Ferguson argued that "History at U.S. colleges is suffering decline and fall, and faster than Gibbon's Roman Empire" because faculty at places like Yale were offering too many classes on topics like emotions, sex, indigenous religion, and witchcraft. Ferguson's analysis, like Boot's, did not stray beyond Yale, nor did it cite comprehensive data on course enrollment. He characterized alleged curricular shifts away from diplomatic, political, and military history as "pathologies," and lamented that history classrooms would remain empty as a result. (In the fall of 2019 at my university's history department, the witchcraft class filled first, followed by one on the Black Death.)

In 2017, New York Times pundit David Brooks linked the decline of the study of Western civilization to the rise of Trump and other demagogues. Drawing on a narrative about great Western men (Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu, and Rousseau) and the principles that these thinkers had established in Western societies (reasoned discourse, property rights, and "the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated"), Brooks writes that, in the 20th century, "many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke." Like Boot and Ferguson, Brooks did not offer evidence that fewer classes now cover the histories of Western Europe and the U.S. I've never seen a history department in the country without plenty of U.S. and European history, even if we don't always call that history "civilization."

Not all critiques of history are about course content; the other accusation leveled at historians is that we've climbed into our ivory towers and drawn up the ladder behind us. Last fall, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, historian and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore said that the "academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world." Lepore is echoing familiar laments about cloistered academics, but this analysis simply isn't correct. In response, another historian, Tom Sugrue of New York University, listed many examples of recent public interventions by historians and other academics. In a Twitter thread, Sugrue wrote, "It's a veritable golden age for historians engaging the wide public." Lepore's contention that the academy is struggling because humanists have retreated just doesn't hold up against the unprecedented wave of public engagement by historians in recent years.

Still, the data indicating the drop in enrollment is real. Benjamin Schmidt, a professor at Northwestern University, has crunched the numbers and found a precipitous decline in history majors. Yet there's no evidence that more military and diplomatic history would solve the problem, or that curricular choices are relevant to the problem at all. So what do we do?

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I've been teaching history for 20 years. Now I'm the undergraduate adviser at a flagship public university, advising hundreds of students at any one time. There are lots of students interested in political and military history. They find their interests well served by a huge range of courses on both subjects, often taught in ways that incorporate our best understandings of how politics and war interact with other fields of analysis (technology, race, gender, economics, and countless more). In my experience, though, the demographic of students seeking courses on political and military history tends to skew white and male. Meanwhile, the undergraduate population on American campuses is increasingly racially diverse and majority female. If history is going to thrive, it is going to have to serve all the populations that are coming to college.

And that's what historians are doing. At my university, just looking at enrollment for next fall, popular classes include a history of soccer (including considerations of race, gender, colonialism, nationalism, economics), the history of food, World War I, early Christianity, religion and U.S. culture, immigration, Hitler's Germany, and the Crusades. Specialized classes on diverse and engaging topics tend to attract students. It's the intro level where we have more trouble, leading to real money problems, as advanced placement classes and changing general-education requirements no longer drive thousands of students into big survey courses. Still, historians aren't abdicating; they're innovating. And as a result, students are finding classes that meet their interests. History, as a discipline, is increasingly as diverse as the world we study.

Still, our numbers of majors keep falling. It's not happening everywhere, of course; history majors at some elite schools continue to do pretty well, especially at Boot's own Yale. In the last few years, history at Yale has been thriving thanks to fairly modest innovations around providing direction and building community. One professor told me recently over the phone that the department throws a party with cake at the beginning of each semester, forms student cohorts, and lays out clear pathways through the major. Enrollments in history at Yale have been surging. We don't all need to start buying cakes; the key is to find ways to turn students' natural interest in history into course registrations and majors.

Because there are plenty of students who love history. Some pursue that love into departments like mine, but others shy away because of concerns about money. College is expensive. They want to be guaranteed a job. Both students and especially their parents believe in a literal-minded way that one's choice of major will determine all professional outcomes. Over the years, I've had hundreds of conversations with students who wanted to study history, but didn't think they could get a job if they did so. The endurance of this idea reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of college in educating young minds, and of how job outcomes work. It turns out that history is, in fact, a pretty practical degree, as are most of the liberal arts. Historians get excellent jobs. While some majors lead to more money for a first job, salary differentials between majors diminish over time. (There are a few exceptions, including engineering majors, whose lifetime earnings about double the median. History majors earn right around the median.) What's more, historians develop the analytical skills to carry themselves into any number of professions or advanced degree programs. But when you're saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of student debt, sometimes it's hard to play the long game and follow one's interests to a satisfying and potentially lucrative career. The immediate payoff of a higher-salary first job can feel mandatory.

I love all of the humanities, but I argue that history is the discipline best suited to instruct students how to respond to the 21st-century information ecology of short deadlines and overwhelming access to information. Historians learn to locate complicated historical contexts, sort through sources, then navigate a path to a coherent and persuasive argument in a timely way. There is no field in the knowledge economy that does not benefit from these skills. That's why, in many cases, only rich kids can study the humanities, while poor kids feel obligated to major in business—and then often work for the rich kids for the rest of their lives. There's nothing wrong with pursuing an undergraduate business degree situated in a rich liberal arts and sciences curriculum if that's what you want to do, but these degrees (as opposed to MBAs) are not fast tracks to the C-suite. Yale history majors know this. Then again, student debt at Yale is lower than the national average; students there whose families make less than $65,000 a year pay no tuition or fees. Yalies probably aren't as worried, in general, about their first jobs out of college. They want to be educated and to have long careers. And cake.

There's been a crash across the humanities since the Great Recession, and no amount of course innovation or public engagement that can fix it. We have to change the basic economics of a college education, and arguments that deviate from this essential truth distract us from the core issues. We are in a decades-long decline of public investment in higher education, including a $9 billion reduction over the last 10 years. The public, meanwhile, assumes that investment in higher education has been growing. Maybe we should concentrate on telling them the truth, rather than scolding historians for (allegedly) not teaching enough political history. Then let's get to work making college free, canceling student debt, and letting students follow their interests. We might just save history. And with a broader population educated in all the rich lessons of history, literature, arts, social sciences, and hard sciences, we also might just save the world.

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