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Why Major in History?

Is there value in a history major these days?

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:

  • Why are you studying history?
  • What do you enjoy about it?
  • How are you approaching the major?
  • What are you learning from it?
  • How will you choose to use it?
  • How creative are you at integrating it into a career plan?
  • How well can you articulate the value of it?
  • How open-minded are you in its application?

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:

  • A “dog on a bone” for information. Always hungry for the "facts."
  • Never content with what someone says. Have to look it up for themselves.
  • Insatiably curious about everything.
  • Able to view events in context.
  • Knowing the value of oral history and remembering the past as it affected individuals and societies.

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.

  • Go for it! Don't let others make fun of you or question the “worth” of a history degree in society. As a graduate student in kinesiology, I could definitely write better and read faster while comprehending more than any of my classmates. Even in my first internship, my boss was completely surprised at my abilities to write whatever was needed at any moment and to edit meticulously.
  • History may not be "practical" in the sense that business administration is, but studying history forces one to analyze, to look at "foreign" situations, to realize that the basic US norms are not global, to broaden one's ideas of what constitutes norms of acceptable behavior, to see the past as a new field. History rocks.
  • I was going to major in math but I loved history. I knew I wanted to be a doctor, and I knew that majoring in it would be my last great chance to learn something not medically related. And because I loved it I got an A average which allowed me to get into medical school.
  • You may not use the "history" part of your degree in your daily work life. (I work in information technology.) But the writing, researching, and thinking skills you learn will serve you well in any future job.
  • As a history major, I attended an historic preservation institute. It turned my life in a different direction and I became an architect.
  • The history of science made me respect science as a creative enterprise and taught me the value of historical context.
  • History gives you an edge in political debates.
  • The history of ancient and modern philosophy completely changed my perspective on life.
  • My class in Roman history forced us to “think or sink”; to look for unasked questions, to examine assumptions, and to avoid careless writing.
  • History improved my writing and critical thinking skills and taught me to prepare and critique research.
  • The History of the Reformation taught me to think about the world in new dimensions, such as how societies order themselves.
  • When one traces the continuum of events from the cold war era to where the US is today (geopolitically) the information seems even more relevant than ever.
  • My honors American History class really opened my eyes in that it was a collection of brilliant students who worked hard. For the first time I was challenged to the point where I had to struggle just to remain average. It was something that needed to happen.
  • My Comparative Celtic course instilled a lifelong fascination for history and archaeology.
  • As a result of a history of Rome course I became very interested in history and was able to tie that in with my study of economics and ultimately my career in economics. So much of what we see in economies today is predicated upon the history of that area.
  • Modern German History taught me that good history must try to answer the question "So What?" I've found that this question, and the approach it engenders, to be particularly valuable in my work.
  • My thesis from a Texas history class ultimately led to a publication by a major book publisher.
  • History was perfect for me because I like to read and I am good at remembering dates, times, people, etc. Also, I find it very intriguing. Students should pick something that they are interested in for a major. That way, they are more likely to be successful and to pick up the other skills that come with studying in that area.

The study of history changed these individuals' lives. Sure sounds like a valuable use of their time and money.

©2012 Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo Credit: Ron Cogswell

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