I recently received an email from a young reader who read my blog about the value of a Classics major and expressed surprise and excitement that one could major in ancient history. He is truly fascinated with the subject, but when he told his family that he might major in history it started an argument.
It’s not hard to guess what was said. Practical majors lead to jobs. Impractical majors don’t. What are you going to do with that major? An understandable concern in today's economic environment. (By the way, liberal arts degrees aren't the only degrees being challenged these days. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article, Wealth or Waste? The Value of a Business Major, describing the major as too focused on nuts-and-bolts and not offering enough critical thinking.)
Like most liberal arts majors, a history major doesn’t necessarily have a linear, direct path to a career. Oh sure, some people teach history, and there are history-related jobs like museum or archive work (which generally require graduate degrees), or even titles like corporate historian-- but after naming those fields, which offer limited opportunities, most people are stuck.
So is a history major a waste of time and money as this student's parents seemed to think? In truth, the ultimate answer to this question rests with the students themselves:
It starts with your attitude. If you say or think, “this major is a waste of time” or “I wish I had studied something practical,” the degree probably is/was a waste because you will convey this attitude to a potential employer-- who will agree with you and probably not hire you because, why, after all, did you invest four years in something so useless? To paraphrase Henry Ford, “If you think your history major is a waste, you’re right. If you think your history major is invaluable, you’re right.”
If you don’t enjoy the major or know why you’re studying it then it’s time for a reality check. If you do enjoy it, but you are only focused on a direct linear outlet for your degree, you are not casting your career net far enough. It’s time to meet with career center staff, talk to your parents, an academic advisor, your professors, alumni, and even get an internship—do what you need to do to find your academic purpose and the value of your education.
And it isn’t enough to appreciate the degree yourself. Passion for a subject is wonderful— but you have to be able to market the degree. You cannot arrive at an interview, proudly announce your history degree and expect the employer to intrinsically understand its value.
A few years ago I taught a “History Majors in the Workplace” course at UT, and during one of the class exercises I asked my students to describe the characteristics of a “successful” history major. They had no trouble doing this—they described themselves as:
Take a moment and consider if this describes you. What else would you add? These traits seem to be highly valuable to an employer in almost any field. And if you combined your history knowledge with an entrepreneurial mindset who knows where it might take you. Check out the American Historical Association for information and articles on the value of a history major.
For now, here are some statements from UT alumni with undergraduate majors in history who responded to a survey I conducted. Please note: I have condensed some of their statements.
The study of history changed these individuals' lives. Sure sounds like a valuable use of their time and money.