A couple of days ago, David Brooks wrote a passionate column about the importance of a liberal arts education. As students face a horrendous job market, they are increasingly majoring in practical majors — business, economics, and technology — and staying away from majors that don't seem to lead directly to a career plan. What does one do with a history or a philosophy major? God knows that we don't want them going on for a PhD.
Brooks writes, "There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of
liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound
to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play
bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs
are more glamorous than the libraries."
However, history majors have certain advantages over the practical majors. Brooks explains that you learn how to write effective business documents and to use language to build a brand. A knowledge of history also gives you a certain perspective on life. It gives us perspective on the irrational, on word-less beauty, and on human frailties.
Yes to everything he said.
When it became distressingly obvious that Steve's history PhD wasn't going to land him a job, he applied for a job with a temp agency in Manhattan. His first assignment was at an investment bank. He was an administrative assistant assigned to answering phones and filling out basic paperwork. He was hired permanently a few months later, and he's been promoted many times over the years. He's a vice-president now, and will hopefully move up another level in the next year or so.
Steve works in the documents division. He negotiates the contracts and makes sure that stock brokers fill out the proper paperwork in order to trade properly. His clients are the state of New Mexico and major corporations, not Grandma who wants to buy a couple of bonds. It's a very intense job with quite a bit of responsibility. Most of his colleagues have law or business degrees.
While Steve had to learn about the stock market and money stuff on the job, he already had quite a few skills that have served him well in the past ten years. He knew how to write. He knew how to research information. He was able to work independently. He did have to unlearn "professorial speak;" he had to stop pontificating in business meetings and he had to stop using words like "the petite bourgeoisie" on the trading floor.
Aside from the practical benefits, Steve's history background gives him a lot of joy. He reads history tomes on the bus ride into the city and he tells Jonah about how the rifle helped transform American history.
I used to teach Introduction to Political Theory every semester, in addition to other political science classes. The students and I would go through Pericles, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx and all the dead dudes (and a few dead chicks). It was always a packed class. Thirty kids in a stuffy room. Most of the students were there, because it was a requirement for the political science major. They hadn't read any of that material before.
They loved it. They ate it up on toast.
After we read Pericles funeral oration, I had them imagine how a modern leader could rework the structure and the themes of his speech. Then we talked about Socrates. They loved that cantankerous old dude who walked up to strangers and asked them, “… aren’t you ashamed to be only concerned with making money and give no
thought about truth and perfecting your soul?" I asked them what they would think if a stranger went up to them while they were waiting in line in Starbucks and told them to think about truth and philosophy and not money. Lots of laughter and discussion.
I understand that students today have to be practical. We've certainly had to go the practical route ourselves in order to provide for the kids. However, I hope that in the rush to do the practical thing that we still make time to do do the fun thing — read history books on the bus and to take the class that lets us imagine a crazy old dude in Starbucks.