So What Are You Doing With That History Major?

Historians/History
tags: education, history crisis



Fred Johnson is a professor of history at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. 


I understand how majoring in history seems like an odd choice, maybe even foolish, these days. With college costs burdening family budgets and parents wanting their students to pursue majors that transfer quickly into jobs, touting history in a commoditized employment market is a tough sell. Fair enough.

So rather than dash into the strong headwinds of opinion which have long insisted that studying history has little practical value for the “real” world, perhaps it’s more productive to examine if, and how, the “real” world has any practical value for history.

As a young Marine Corps 2nd Lieutenant who was responsible for the lives of the Marines I commanded, there wasn’t a day when history didn’t come to my rescue. With more enthusiasm than experience and more cockiness than common sense, the skills of research, information assessment, precise question development, facilitation, public speaking, teambuilding and leadership that I learned as a history major helped me succeed. The decisions I made by employing the skills taught by history had to be right because if they weren’t, people died.

Senior officers understood that “wet behind the ears” 2nd Lieutenants made mistakes, but they expected those mistakes to be few, widely spaced apart and steadily decreasing in number. My favorite historical topics didn’t offer solutions to my immediate daily problems, but the process of studying and learning that content, developing the oral and written communication skills needed to articulate it, and refining the critical thinking essential for success in any field were gifts that history gave and has continued to give.

While working as a training coordinator at an aircraft wheel and brake manufacturer, my co-workers had little interest in or use for history. The information I taught at the company had to be conceptually precise whether it was related to chemistry and physics or federal and international standards for quality performance and safety.

I wasn’t particularly qualified to work in a manufacturing facility that used high-tech machines to produce aircraft wheels and brakes. I wasn’t particularly qualified to give instruction on how to operate those machines, teach the techniques for chemically treating aluminum and steel, or provide detailed guidance for the processing of our most expensive brakes. But my knowledge gap in all those areas was filled by employing the investigative research, source identification, information analysis and writing skills learned from studying history.

Winning the respect and confidence of mechanical and electrical engineers resulted from possessing the skills to research, analyze and blend into multilevel instruction the work they did as it related to the work of machine operators on the shop floor. There was no room for failure because, for those who fly commercial airliners and those who manufacture the wheels and brakes those aircraft land on, there’s no tolerance for a bad landing.

It wasn’t until coming to the apparently “not real” world of academia that I finally used history purely for history. When telling students that the skills and expertise I learned from history supported me, empowered me and frankly kept me employed in every non-history job I’ve ever had, their eyes fill with understandable doubt. For even in an institution dedicated to exploring and nurturing the spirit and the intellect to develop whole human beings (rather than merely graduating more highly skilled employees) there’s tremendous, if shortsighted, pressure to chase majors that will get them a job.

The reality of the commoditized workplace offers assurances that there’ll always be a need for those aspiring to be mere employees. But for those who seek both a job and a vocation, for those who’d like to develop skills that’ll help them succeed in any occupation at any place and any time, for those who dare to risk learning a discipline that will enrich their lives and vicariously impart the traits of leadership, for anyone who desires to learn writing skills that will earn promotions, for the few who want to become dynamic public speakers of great influence; for those wise enough to know that the key to future prosperity lies in mastering knowledge of the past, for those who seek to refine their understanding of teamwork and collaboration, for citizens who prefer facts to the toxic bamboozling of pundits, and for those seeking the biggest bang for their tuition buck, majoring in history will yield a powerful dividend that the commoditized workplace knows so well: ROI.



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