Last month at City Journal, Allison Schrager wrote a compelling piece about the future of land-grant universities, detailing the challenges these institutions face in an evolving economy and a divisive political moment. Despite such headwinds, these schools offer legislators an opportunity to reinvigorate state humanities programs.

As Schrager notes, red states and blue states are approaching the humanities’ future differently. The problem, she says, is that “humanities programs shirked their mission by becoming overtly political and less rigorous.” Blue-state institutions, such as the University of Connecticut, are slashing budgets across the board. Red-state institutions, such as West Virginia University, may elect to maintain STEM programs while cutting funds to the humanities and social-science disciplines.

Both the red- and blue-state strategies reflect the humanities’ decline. Fewer students want to major in these fields than in the past. In the last ten years, the number of English and history majors nationally has declined by at least a third. Across the country, humanities and social-science departments are undergoing budget cuts. The University of Nebraska at Kearney, for example, completely eliminated its philosophy major in 2022.

The decline is not universal. At my alma mater, Hillsdale College, between 10 percent and 15 percent of each graduating class majors in history, and most students enjoy the school’s humanities-heavy core curriculum. Apparently, at least some students want to study the humanities, albeit not it in departments more interested in grievance studies than genuine liberal education.

Enter public universities, which play a vital role in American civic life. With a bit of legislative creativity, land-grant schools can lead a renaissance in the traditional liberal arts.

Federal land grants for universities extend back to America’s earliest days, after the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 committed the new territories to the perpetual encouragement of “schools and the means of education” for the purpose of advancing “good government and the happiness of mankind.” States also created a wave of land-grant universities under the Morrill Act of 1862, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. These institutions were devoted to science, technology, engineering, and math long before the acronym “STEM” was coined, and made education accessible to generations of pioneers, farmers, and rural and small-town American youth seeking knowledge and upward mobility. Their origins as creations of federal policy—enacted, notably, during a war contesting the meaning of America’s very identity—were profoundly rooted in the civic purpose of the country as expressed in the Northwest Ordinance.

Land-grant schools, then, are natural homes for a humanities- and civics-education revival. Several states across the country have created Schools of Civic Thought—independent academic programs devoted to interdisciplinary study of foundational political, economic, and philosophical ideas and their application in a free society. Students in these programs learn what it means to live full lives both as citizens and as human beings.

The first such program to launch was Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, followed by schools in Florida, Utah, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Ohio. Among these are three programs at land-grant institutions: the Hamilton Center at the University of Florida, the Institute for American Civics at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, and the Salmon P. Chase Center for Civics, Culture, and Society, now in formation at Ohio State University. These new institutions enable state legislatures to support fields of study, such as literature, history, and other humanities disciplines, that have been neglected in recent years. Given the prospect of drastic budget cuts, including those Schrager identified at WVU, these innovations should come as welcome news to humanities scholars.

The movement to create Schools of Civic Thought at America’s land-grant universities could bring to thousands of undergraduates a serious education in American constitutional principles and history, leadership studies, law, and economics. These new schools represent an innovative approach to fulfilling the mission of public universities, which for too long has been forsaken. As our Founders knew, civics is foundational to a just society and a sustainable economic order. Improving civics education is too urgent a cause to ignore.

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