Cato the Elder

The Myth of the Unemployable History Major Must Be Destroyed

One Thing after Another has a son in high school, so this blog knows a number of parents who have completed the college application grind. Among these are “K” (we feel obliged to protect her anonymity), whose son was considering Saint Anselm College. At one point, she told One Thing after Another that her son liked history, but since “he wanted to make sure he had a job after he graduated,” he was going to major in politics. In the end, K’s son went to another school so, in a sense, his choice of major did not matter.

K’s reasoning, however, does matter to this blog. For years, One Thing after Another has heard this line of argument over and over again. A history major is an unaffordable luxury, so the argument goes, because one cannot merely go to college to study one’s interests. The cost is so great that students must major in something that will guarantee them a job. Since the only kinds of jobs supposedly open to history majors are teaching and positions related to history (e.g. museum staff), students often look to other majors that give them better opportunities.

This blog understands why parents feel this way. One Thing after Another remembers the anxious expression on K’s careworn face as she explained the decisions that she and her son had to make. The stakes are high. College is so expensive that parents cannot avoid thinking in terms of return on investment. At Saint Anselm College, tuition for 2017-2018 will be $38,960, room and board will reach $14,146, and mandatory fees will come in at $1,030. Obviously, not everyone will pay this kind of money. The discount rate at our school is around 49% (much to the dismay of our CFO), which means that the average student will pay just over half of the $38,960 in tuition (somewhere around $19,960) for a total bill of about $35,136. Spending that kind of money over four years, one could buy about six 2017 Honda CRVs or pay for almost 60% of the median home price in Goffstown ($247,000 for the period between January and April). Finding this kind of cash is an enormous burden for middle-class families—let alone poor ones. It’s no wonder that students rush to major in disciplines where the connection between the field of study and a remunerative job seems obvious. It seems fairly easy to understand, then, why students are somewhat more hesitant to take the plunge in a major where connecting the dots between academic work and employment appears somewhat more difficult.

But the dots are there, and they can be connected if only people show a little patience.

History classes stress the analysis of various media—usually texts but also sources like film, music, painting, and so on. History majors ask and answer questions such as, “Who produced this source?” “Why did she produce it?” and “Under what circumstances was this source produced?” Ours is a reading-intensive discipline because reading is the only way to become practiced at this sort of thing. Doing this kind of work requires the development of analytical skills that lead students to sharpen their judgment. They come to understand what is likely or what is true. At the same time, they are required to synthesize a great deal of material to form a comprehensive picture of how people, places, and things have worked in the past—and how they may work in the future. They are then prepared to answer questions such as, “Why did this happen?” and “How did it occur?” What’s more, students in History are compelled by the nature of the discipline to articulate their thoughts in a systematic and compelling manner, both through discussion and on paper. In addition to being a reading-intensive discipline, we are also a writing-intensive one. Finally, the study of history leaves students with an enormous amount of cultural capital. Among other things, they encounter great literature, music, painting, movies, and rhetoric.  At the same time, they also learn about important events and noteworthy civilizations that we should all know something about—such as Han China, the French Revolution, the Zulu Kingdom, the Progressive Era in America, and World War II. Students educated in this fashion thus add to their stock of experience which helps them confront the challenges of the present.

To summarize, the course of study that History majors undergo provides them with high-level analytical skills, a capacity to synthesize large chunks of information, and an ability to present logical arguments in a persuasive fashion. Not only that, but their training offers them knowledge that helps them navigate and understand the world. These are the kind of attributes employers are looking for even in an age where STEM seems to be king (see here, here, here, here, here, and here—you get the idea).

We know these things to be true because we see what happens to our own majors after they graduate from Saint Anselm College. Our department recently surveyed alums who graduated between 2012 and 2015 with a degree in History. We determined that out of the three-quarters who responded to the survey, 100% were employed or attending graduate school. We also found they attained success in a wide variety of fields, most of which have nothing to do with history. For sure, we always have a number of students who double-major in history and secondary education. We are proud of these students, many of whom are high achievers; in 2014 and 2015, the winner of the Chancellor’s Award for the highest GPA in the graduating class was a history major who went on to teach. And yes, we also have a small number of graduates who go on to work in history-related fields (see here and here). But around 75% of our graduates are scattered among a wide range of other jobs.

Recently, One Thing after Another engaged in the exercise of naming all the positions held by History alumni whom the blog personally knows. This list is obviously not scientific; other members of the History Department know different alums who hold even more positions. Yet what follows ought to give the reader a sense of the wild diversity of jobs open to those who major in History. One Thing after Another knows many history majors who have gone on to law school and have since hung out their shingle as attorneys. Many of our alumni also work for the FBI, the CIA, and the DHS. Others have found employment as police officers and state troopers. We have a number of alumni who currently serve as commissioned officers in the armed forces. Many have gone into politics, serving as lobbyists, political consultants, legislative aids, and town administrators. Others have been on the staffs of governors and mayors. Large numbers work in sales for a variety of industries. We have managers at investment firms and folks who work on Wall Street. Other history majors this blog knows are in the health insurance business, serve as economic consultants, hold positions in import-export businesses, have become construction executives, and work in public relations. They have also become dentists, software engineers, filmmakers, nurses, social workers, journalists, translators, college coaches, and executive recruiters. Some work in the hospitality industry as the managers of resorts, hotels, and convention centers. Others are to be found on college campuses as administrators, financial aid officers, reference librarians, and so on. And then there are the archivists, curators, and museum staffers. Remember, this list (which was compiled in a somewhat off-hand manner) is not exhaustive. It only consists of alumni whom One Thing after Another knows personally. There are many other history alums out there doing even more things.

This blog must close with a reference to Cato the elder (portrayed above). In the years before the Third Punic War (149 BC-146 BC), this prominent soldier, politician, and historian, was convinced that Carthage still presented the greatest threat to Roman power in the Mediterranean. His obsession with Carthage is captured in the story that he concluded every speech in the Senate, no matter what the topic, with “Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”—which means in English, “Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.” This phrase has often been shortened to “Carthago delenda est” or “Carthage must be destroyed.” From this point forward, in defense of history, One Thing after Another must be as implacable as Cato the Elder, and thus, this blog will conclude every post with, “The myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.”