Why Major in History?: An Undergraduate Perspective

James Mueller is a sophomore history major at Messiah College.  I first met James last year.  He was enrolled in my Introduction to History course.  As a first-year student he was deciding whether he wanted to major in history or engineering. He eventually chose history. Now, over at the blog of the Messiah College Center for Public Humanities Fellows Program, James defends his decision.   Here is his post, in its entirety:

Asking people for money over the phone is as eventful as you suspect. Occasionally they pick up and you have a successful, or at least a pleasant, conversation. More often, they tell you (with kindness levels varying from person to person) that they’re not interested. Most of the time though, you just get voicemail – lots and lots of voicemail. It was one of those voicemail nights last Thursday at the Messiah Phonathon Call Center when my mind started to wander. Normally I would shoot the breeze with a coworker until an alumnus or alumna in my calling pool picked up the phone, but I wasn’t much in the talking mood. So I just listened. And, on par with what normally happens when you listen well, eventually I heard something that was worth thinking about.
He was talking to my supervisor: “Look, there’s a reason Messiah has such a terrible ROI. Most of the kids going to this college are majoring in things like English or some other pointless degree. What are you gonna do with that when you get out of college?” A couple of the 9 other people in the Call Center started to snigger in agreement. He went on: “Get this, the first couple days of class, my Shakespeare prof  even tried telling us why being an English major is a good idea. He talked about how it would be good for being a lawyer or even a good businessmen – he said every business needs good writers. Like, what? Why don’t they just major in Business if they’re gonna be working for a company?” More laughter and agreement followed from a couple others.
I almost spoke up. I almost told him how wrong I thought he was. But I didn’t. I held my tongue and spared my coworkers an argument that may not have made sense to them and that they probably didn’t even want to hear – I do like these people after all. Instead, I decided to preserve my thoughts, reflect on the matter, and then respond with the written word. I figure giving people the opportunity to stop reading and close the web browser is a kindness.
The first thing that needs to be set straight is this notion that humanities majors are worthless and impractical. I could write another whole post about how skewed this is; I could highlight the indispensable analytic and verbal skills the Humanities hone; I could mention the many notable business and political icons who ‘wasted their time’ on ‘worthless’ degrees; I could talk about how hilariously modern this notion is; but instead I’ll hold off. If you’re really itching for some fact check though, a simple Google search ought to clear things up (‘successful liberal arts majors’ perhaps?). You’ll be surprised. For now, I’ll talk about something you’re probably more interested in: success.
Success is simple. Go to college, get a useful degree, score a well-paying job, settle down, raise a family, send your kids to college, retire. Done. You probably think I’m making a gross generalization. Maybe you even think my trite imagery is a weapon that only angry hipsters use to justify their failures. Oh, how I wish I could make fun of hipsters and agree with you! But talk to someone. Right now, tomorrow, a week from now, whenever: ask someone why they do what they do. Preferably ask a college student. Now listen. What do you hear? Money, job security, practicality…all prudent reasons some would say. And I don’t entirely disagree. I understand wanting to be self-sufficient. I understand wanting to start a family and provide for that family. Those are responsible and unselfish goals. But they are not the most important goals.
So then, what is the ultimate goal? I don’t know. There are a lot of things I could say, but many of them would probably be wrong. So I’ll just stick to something I think is more important: understanding people. Husband, wife, kids, family, friends, coworkers, everywhere you look we’re connected to someone else. Relationships form the heart of all domestic and workplace activities. Despite this, we’re bad with people. We hurt each other. A lot. I’ve watched countless relationships fall apart. It’s depressing, frustrating, and generally due to a web of complex issues which have pushed both people to the brink. Many people just can’t seem to grapple with their partner’s humanity (or their own for that matter). They don’t understand what makes other’s tick, their judgment is impaired from an inability to draw on more experiences than their own, they don’t understand why people can’t seem to just get it right (aka, do it the way they think it should be done), and they end up alienating the people they love most because of all this.
Okay, so it’s clear our relationship I.Q. is low. But how do we fix this? How can we understand more about ourselves and about the people around us so that we can form healthier and longer-lasting relationships? Studying one of those ‘worthless’ degrees just may be the key.
I can’t speak for English or any of the other Humanities majors (though I’m sure students of each respective field could give you a great argument), but I can confidently say that history is all about people. Sorry if that sounds like tautology, but I think it truly does need saying. Most people think history is in the business of facts and dates, but that’s just not true. The facts and dates are important because they are attached to the people of the past. Not the other way around.  From the individual to the collective, history gives you the opportunity to intently study the human experience. ‘What did this person say? What were they actually trying to say? What did they really mean? Why?’ Such simple and nuanced questions transport the historian into a wild and unfamiliar land; a land where he has to navigate the conflicted, confused, and utterly different personalities of countless human beings. Sometimes the trip is lovely. At other times it’s terrifying or disgusting. All the time it’s enlightening.
It’s impossible to turn off a brain once it starts thinking historically. You’ll continually want to hear people’s stories, you’ll carefully examine the motivations and actions of others, you’ll become a good listener, and, if you practice history long enough, you’ll start to understand.  Or at least understand that you don’t know it all. And this understanding can lead to humility, appreciation, patience, and, hopefully, to more wholesome relationships.
I’m not going to barge back into the Call Center on Monday and tell my coworker he’s wrong. Because, from his perspective, he’s not. That’s what makes life annoying and beautiful all at the same time. We all have lenses that we look through. Change over time, and all the funny things it does to humanity, is one way me and a lot of other people look at the world. So please hear me: I’m not asking you to get a new pair of glasses. You don’t even have to like the ones I’m wearing. All I hope is that people will recognize there’s more than one barometer for success. Understanding is nice. Trust me: I’m going to school for it.

One thought on “Why Major in History?: An Undergraduate Perspective

  1. “Look, there’s a reason Messiah has such a terrible ROI. Most of the kids going to this college are majoring in things like English or some other pointless degree. What are you gonna do with that when you get out of college?”

    Writing and speaking well is invaluable. But as for other humanities–let's say history or French poetry–the reality of the ROI is certainly a question worth asking.

    As for the “education” part, paying $30K+ per year isn't the only way to learn about “people.”


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