Dear Lt Gov. Hampton,
You probably don’t know me. I run a modest little blog where I talk about history and film. But I’m also a professional historian. I teach history at the college level. I’d like to think I know a few things about studying history.
So I was distressed when I read an interview you gave recently in which you said, in reference to university degree programs, “I would not be studying history. Unless, you have a job lined up. Unless there’s somebody looking for a history major. And there are some places that are looking for that sort of wide background, but…” Elsewhere in the interview, you compare studying French literature unfavorably to studying electrical engineering, and you seem to say that universities shouldn’t subsidize the study of the Humanities with tax dollars.
There are a lot of things in that interview I disagree with, but let me focus on just that quote and the assumptions underlining it. Your comment reveals that you, like a lot of people, don’t see much value in studying history, that it’s something one does purely for personal enjoyment. You seem to think that studying history doesn’t really have much value in terms of a career, unless one wants to be a history teacher.
But a lot of people would beg to differ. Those who have studied the past at a university understand that it has a great deal of value in a wide range of fields.
Just ask Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, or Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan, or the late Antonin Scalia, all of whom earned a bachelor’s degree in history. I’m sure they think that the training in close reading of historical documents that their history degree gave them is enormously useful in doing a close reading of a legal brief. (Incidentally, Clarence Thomas studied English literature, and Stephen Breyer studied philosophy, two more Humanities fields. Interesting that 6 out of 9 member of the Supreme Court chose the Humanities for their entrance into law.)
Or just ask a few of our past presidents, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Richard Nixon, or George W. Bush. (Eisenhower and Kennedy didn’t study history academically, but they both wrote on the subject.) Or maybe ask a few other important politicians such as George McGovern, George Mitchell, Henry Kissinger, Newt Gingrich, Orrin Hatch, Eric Holder, Robert Gates, Porter Goss, Joe Biden, James Baker, Dianne Feinstein, Jerry Brown, and Cory Booker, all of whom studied history or classics. I’m sure they found a historical perspective on politics and international conflicts an asset while they were in office.
Or if you want an explanation of how a history degree might be useful in business, try asking Carly Fiorina, Lee Iacocca, Martha Stewart, Jeff Zucker at NBC, William Clay Ford, Jr. of Ford Motor Company, James Kilts of Gilette, Robert Johnson of BET, Patricia Russo of Lucent, Ted Turner (who did classics), or any one of a large number of other CEOs. I would imagine they find the broad perspective we take in history useful in a variety of business situations.
Or ask J.K. Rowling, whose love of Latin and Classics shows itself every time one of her characters calls out “Expelliarmus’ or “Expecto Patronum!” She’s not the only famous author with a degree focused on the past; others include Annie Proulx, Rita Mae Brown, Willa Cather, C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, Salman Rushdie, and P.G. Wodehouse (although he dropped out for financial reasons before finishing his degree).
Think it’s only intellectual types who study history? Think again. Successful athletes like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Grant Hill, Leo Lett (three-time Superbowl champion), and Troy Polamalu (another Superbowl champion) are all history degree holders; Vince Lombardi studied classics.
How about some successful entertainers, like Katherine Hepburn, Larry David, Sasha Baron Cohen, Jimmy Buffett, Jeanane Garofalo, Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Conan O’Brien, Tom Hiddleston, Lauryn Hill (although she never finished her degree), John Lithgow, Edward Norton, and Steve Carell, to name just a few.
Do I need to go on?
My point here is that history degrees don’t just prepare you to teach high school. They prepare you for a wide variety of careers. A history degree can prepare people for nearly any field that involves reading, writing, and thinking critically, and what fields DON’T require those skills?
But you’re skeptical. I get that. You have a sense that there really aren’t a lot of jobs of history majors. So let’s look at the numbers, and compare history majors against your favored example, electrical engineers. According to this study of employment rates in 2010-11, history majors fresh out of college have an unemployment rate of 10.2%, compared to an electrical engineering major’s 7.3% That looks bad, until you take into consideration that an engineering degree is closely aligned with a specific career, and a history degree isn’t. So the history major takes a bit of time to find his or her career path. But once history majors gain some work experience and find a career direction, their unemployment rate drops to 5.8%, just slightly above the electrical engineer’s 5.2%. This is hardly evidence that history majors don’t have careers to look forward to.
And look at the poor architecture majors. Their unemployment rate is 13.9%, and only drops to 9.2% with some experience. And yet, somehow, you don’t seem to have a sense that architecture is a useless major.
Furthermore, what happens to the electrical engineers who don’t find work in their field or who decide that the field isn’t for them? They’ve trained for a very specific sort of work, and are likely to have a substantial retraining period ahead of them. In contrast, history majors who decide not to pursue, for example, teaching or working in an archive can easily transition to business, or law, or a host of other fields. History degrees don’t prepare you for a specific field; they prepare you for a wide range of fields, which means that a shortage of jobs in one specific field doesn’t hurt history majors the way it would hurt engineering majors. In a complex business world, where job needs are unpredictable and workers are likely to switch careers several times, history and other Humanities degrees are in many ways a safer bet than many single-track fields.
There’s also the fact that Humanities degrees train students in creative thinking and clear communication, which might be why Silicon Valley has been hiring so many non-tech people lately.
And I haven’t even raised the personal benefits of studying something you love rather than something you think is employable. I haven’t brought up the fact that the Humanities are about quality of life, not just quantity of income. I haven’t gotten around to pointing out that life has more value than just the one you can measure with dollars. I haven’t looked at the way that studying history changes and enriches the way you understand the world around you, the news, and maybe your own life. As I tell my students, history is the most interesting thing there is to study, because everything you’re interested in has a history.
Don’t just take my word for it. Try studying it a little. I guarantee you’ll learn something worthwhile.