“I want to be employable,” said one of my advisees the other day. He’s understandably worried about racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans in order to pay for a History B.A. that doesn’t lead neatly to a certain job.
Now, for some of our students, history-related education is a good career fit: we have a strong track record in preparing junior and senior high social studies teachers, and we’ve got a handful of alums at various stages of preparation for careers as history professors. But if you don’t want to work in education, or another field where you’ll actually be talking about the past every day (e.g., museums, archives), what do you do with a History major?
We’ll come back to this question a lot at AC 2nd, so expect to see more resources in the future. But today and tomorrow, let me give a couple of important general responses. Today: consider how historical studies in college prepare people to cope with the turbulence of the 21st century economy.
We produced the video above last year; the first half of it speaks directly to the employability concern. It features three Bethel History alums who took different career paths. One is a teacher, another a lawyer, and the third (who told us that she went into History knowing full well that she “didn’t want to be a lawyer or teacher”) went back to school and became a nurse.
All of them emphasize that majoring in history cultivates universally useful skills like reading, research, communication, and critical thinking. But more than that, Bethel’s liberal arts education prepared them to be lifelong learners — whether that learning took the form of law school, a master’s in nursing, or continuing education opportunities for teachers, they were better prepared than other students to acquire or refine skills and knowledge.
That’s increasingly important when you realize that most American workers will see the nature of their employment change considerably over the course of their career. Whether they’re moving up within a certain track (e.g., from teaching to administration, or from the ground level of employment to some kind of management) or changing course because of loss of employment, radical changes in the nature of their work (e.g., keeping pace with technological innovation or changing market demands), changing life circumstances (e.g., starting a family, dealing with illness), or a simple change of heart, the 21st century will reward people who are able to learn and adapt.
As former Duke president Nan Keohane put it in a speech we wrote about earlier this semester, in such a volatile economy, it’s much more practical to study the “timeless” liberal arts:
…if you only focus on learning specific materials that are pertinent in 2012, rather than learning about them in a broader context, you will soon find that your training will have become valueless. Most important, with a liberal education you will have learned how to learn, so that you will be able to do research to answer questions in your field that will come up years from now, questions that nobody could even have envisioned in 2012, much less taught you how to answer.
Tomorrow: why corporations are increasingly looking to History and other humanities majors (rather than Business majors) when they make hires.