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To a certain degree, history is just swell

Sun., Nov. 18, 2007

History majors unite! Man the barricades!

(If there’s one thing we history majors know about, it’s manning barricades.)

I am stirred to this declaration because I have been pondering the subject of history degrees, and liberal arts degrees in general. I just learned that history is the fourth most popular major at Gonzaga University.

This makes my heart soar, for two reasons. First, I am happy to see that the ideal of the liberal arts education still thrives on our college campuses. Second, misery loves company.

My choice of a history degree often felt like a burden. It caused me no end of awkward conversations when I was in college. I particularly remember one exchange with a friend of my father that went something like this:

Stern older man: Tell me, young man, what are you studying in college?

Me: History.

Stern older man: So you want to be a teacher?

Me: No.

Stern older man: (troubled) What? What else can you do with a history degree?

Me: I don’t, umm, exactly know.

Stern older man: (looks at me with pity) At least you can apply to law school.

I wish I could find that old guy today, because lately I’ve been feeling like a walking advertisement for a liberal arts degree. My humanities degree, vague as it is, worked just the way it was supposed to. It trained me, specifically, for nothing. Yet it allowed me to do just about anything.

Right now, I wish I could grab that old guy by the collar and rattle off a list of things I ended up doing with a history degree. Among other things, I have reviewed a Cher concert, chronicled the life of a basketball-playing parakeet, produced an essay about killer toilets and composed a mediocre fly-fishing-murder-mystery – mediocrity, sadly, being the curse of the generalist.

Still, I am convinced that a history degree can prepare a student better for a wide range of experience than, let’s say, a golf-course-management degree.

A few years ago, Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, went to the University of Idaho campus to speak to the theater majors. This is essentially what he told them: Don’t waste your time majoring in theater. Go out and major in political science or history. Then, when you get out of college and launch a career as a playwright or director or artist, at least you’ll have something to say.

I loved hearing that, although I doubt if the theater professors were quite so thrilled. It reminded me that the true goals of a liberal arts education are (1) to get people thinking, and (2) to teach them how to think.

In fact, I prefer to believe that a history degree prepared me for being a writer at least as well as a journalism degree. A history degree teaches people that the world did not spring up, fully formed, the day they were born. A journalism degree mainly teaches people how to commit journalism, with results that have been, at best, mixed.

Just look at the state of TV and print journalism today. Then look at who brought it to that state. Buncha journalism majors.

So, cheers to all of those fresh-faced young liberal-arts majors out there. Today, I can say, without hesitation, that majoring in history turned out to be a useful and practical choice.

And if things go bad, which they still might, I can always apply to law school.


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