why history is a good major

A History Degree Builds In-Demand Skills

History builds research and analytical skills through critical reading and writing assignments. A history student must craft a persuasive argument backed by evidence from primary and secondary sources, often drawing on quantitative and qualitative materials to make their case.

Three Reasons Why You Should Major in History

Third, historical knowledge is important. And historical ignorance is dangerous. In individuals, amnesia is devastating; if we dont know where weve come from, we cant know who we are or where we should be headed. In societies, ignorance or willful distortion of the past is closely linked to wars and catastrophic miscalculations. As George Santayana observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Ironically, studying history frees us from its grip. For this reason, modern social movements demanding change–racial and ethnic minorities, women, environmentalists— have searched history anew to find a usable past.

Finally, will a history major get you a good job? Possibly, but not by itself. The same is true for most liberal arts majors. Their goal is to teach you how to think and write and learn. Leaders in American business and professional life, leaders in government and foundations and nonprofit institutions, are intensifying their plea for the campuses to teach their graduates to read efficiently, write clearly, reason logically, and analyze problems against a background of broad social information. They in turn will then train you in particular skills or methods–law, accounting, sales, military, foreign service, production, journalism, music marketing. In our contemporary global economy, individuals may need to learn a half-dozen different jobs in their lifetime, we are told. The world economy increasingly will reward generalist skills of literacy and numeracy over training in particular job categories.

Second, then, history is popular. It is interesting. It deals with real people and events, not abstractions. It offers a boundless variety for selecting favorite topics and pursuing personal interests. Everything has a history — nations, wars, ethnic groups, sexuality, jazz, gambling, postage stamps. History is visible everywhere in American society — theme parks, best-seller lists, cable programming, film epics, public controversy (Hiroshima exhibits, national school curriculum, Kennedy assassination). One of the best reasons to major in a subject is because you enjoy it and can continue to enjoy it after you graduate from Vanderbilt.

First, as one of the core disciplines of the liberal arts, history provides a classic mode of learning. By studying the past, including primary evidence in seminars and honors research, undergraduate majors learn to think with rigor, to write with clarity and precision, to organize and assess evidence, to analyze problems and interpret complex events. Other liberal arts and science disciplines can legitimately make a similar claim: by studying them students also learn how to learn, although each accomplishes this in a different way. Historys special appeal, however, comes from its distinctive subject matter, the human past.

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In advising students, talking to parents, and listening to the priorities articulated by state legislatures, we continue to encounter widespread myths about the lives of people who graduate with history BAs. These myths are largely based on misinformation about the prospective lives of those who major in history. They paint life with a degree in history as a wasteland of unemployment and underemployment—that careful study of Asoka’s conquests or the Industrial Revolution leads to a life of “Would you like fries with that?”

Because of the diversity of careers that humanities majors—particularly history majors—go into, there is a wider-than-­average distribution of incomes based upon field of work (see fig. 5). As in the general workforce, it is the occupation of college graduates in the humanities, rather than their undergraduate major, that accounts for differences in income. For history majors between the ages of 25 and 64 who are neither unemployed nor out of the workforce, the median income is currently $60,000 per year. But for those in managerial positions, the median is $80,000. For those in the legal occupations, the median is $100,000. But for those in education, it is $47,000, and for those who go into community and social services, the median is $45,000.

Fig. 3. Data source: American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators, table III-4a. Available at http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=287.Again, we start with a kernel of truth. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators project released an analysis of ACS data showing that those with degrees in the humanities earn less (in terms of median income) than those with degrees in engineering, health care, business, and the sciences (see fig. 3).

From the ACS, we know that over the years 2010–14, some 29.7 percent of all American adults over 25 completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of those, 2.21 percent received a bachelor’s in history or US history. The ACS data offer us a snapshot of these history majors across the country and at different phases of life: from recent graduates to those in retirement.

A potent way to combat these myths is with concrete data. Thankfully, a massive repository of data, the American Community Survey (ACS), tells us much about the lives of history majors. Conducted by the US Census Bureau each year since 2000, the ACS is a statistical survey of 3.5 million American households. It includes questions on a wide range of topics, from demographic details like age and race/ethnicity to situational data like housing and employment status. Most usefully for us, it also records individuals’ undergraduate majors. These data are then compiled and aggregated into one-, three-, and five-year estimates.

What Can I Do with a History Major?

Like other liberal arts degrees, studying history gives students communication and critical thinking skills that can be applied to a variety of careers.

With a bachelor’s degree, history majors might work as policy analysts, editors or paralegals, to name a few possibilities. For students interested in teaching, some schools allow history majors to simultaneously pursue teacher certification. History majors can also consider graduate study in fields including law, journalism, the arts and business. Majors who go on to receive master’s or doctorate degrees in history can look for jobs at colleges, universities and museums, among other locations.

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