History as a college major?

Recently the History Department at Rice University offered a class on “Methods and Theory in History,” aimed at introducing history majors to the demands of upper division seminars and honors theses. But the class also presented history majors with a panel discussion on life after college with a history degree, in which four current students and recent alumni spoke about the trajectory of their own careers and intellectual development with a history degree.  As it happens, my son, a recent Rice history graduate now making his way in Houston’s natural gas sector, was one.

 

Concern with the usefulness of a history degree has been a long time coming, and occupies the mind of high school seniors and their parents as they look towards college.  Families fret about new economic realities, including unemployment amongst recent graduates and huge student debts. Traditionally many viewed a history degree as a common avenue into law school, but now law schools are shrinking in the face of declining demand. New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, in a piece entitled The Imperiled Promise of College, recently highlighted these concerns.  Bruni pointed out that according to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary.

 

No wonder then that many students feel compelled to set aside their love of history and consider more practical fields as they look towards college – Stanford, with one of the top departments in the country, now only graduates about 70 history majors a year, and at Yale where history has historically been one of the most popular majors, the number of history degrees granted fell from 217 to 131 in the last ten years.

 

Bruni is indeed right in cautioning students that hard economic times require them to be thoughtful, flexible and proactive as they think about their education. But students who love history and would like to study it in college, should not despair either!  If the problem with a history degree is that it does not come with a technical expertise that will ensure a job – like a degree in engineering or nursing may – that flexibility is also an asset.  As that panel at Rice confirmed, countless history majors are still leaving college to find interesting, productive and steady careers in an astonishing diversity of careers, as they always have: in politics and law, entertainment and news (Edward Norton, Steve Carrell, Sacha Baron Cohen), writing (Malcolm Gladwell) and business (Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook).

 

This is surprising only to those who remember history as the mindless memorization inflicted by Mrs. Smith on their fifth grade class.  In college, history students learn to gather, analyze and interpret conflicting evidence.  They construct arguments that fit the evidence, study change over time, and learn to communicate all of that with good writing. There are few profession in which demand for these skills – research, critical and constructive analysis, and the ability to communicate well – is not at a premium. In fact, William Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, argues that narrow pre-professional programs, ” do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.”  An undergraduate degree in history, on the other hand, will give students, whatever their future careers, exactly that kind of flexibility and critical judgment.  Look at the list that the recent SUES committee on undergraduate education at Stanford identified as important skills that Stanford students ought to gain during their time on the Farm: “the capacity to communicate, critical thinking, aesthetic and interpretive judgment; formal and quantitative reason­ing skills; an ability to think historically; facility in both sci­entific and social scientific analysis, including the abilities to formulate and test hypotheses, assess data, and weigh competing theories; and, last but not least, a rich capacity for creative expression, in whatever domain or field.”

 

Why do we still need students to study history?  According to the American Historical Association, it is how we “gain access to the laboratory of human experience.”  Whether a student wants to become a businessman who needs to understand China’s position on international trade, a teacher in high school, a researcher for a think tank on social policy, a government employee or an online journalist, studying history will impart useful knowledge and strong analytical and communication skills.  And in a rapidly changing world, the study of history will above all give students the flexibility and adaptability to keep up the pace.

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