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Want to Save the Humanities? Make College Free.

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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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