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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