How Should I Tell My Parents That I Want to Major in History?

I have been trying to answer this question for a long time. I started exploring career options for history majors in an ongoing series of posts on this blog entitled “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?”  Then I wrote a chapter in my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past entitled “So What Can You Do With a History Major?”

I am glad that history professors at other colleges and universities have found my work in this area helpful.  One of those historians is Jay Case of Malone College.  Here is a taste of his post at The Circuit Reader:

If you read this blog, chances are either you have some appreciation for history, or you are really desperate for a few bad jokes and some cheap snark. If it is the latter, somebody may need to have a long conversation with you about your priorities.

Of course, there are many people who would say that if is the former, you may need to have a long conversation with someone about your priorities. History may be nice if you need a hobby, like collecting snow globes, but beyond that, what’s the point?

I’ve been dealing with this way of thinking throughout my professional career. For instance, I occasionally run into a student who doesn’t understand why they are required to take a history class. And by “occasionally,” I mean a couple dozen students every semester since 1983.

But then, sometimes I get a student who not only loves history, but actually wants to major in history in college. Last month, for instance, I talked to a student who was seriously thinking about becoming a history major. She was thoughtful, did some research on the question, and had very good reasons for thinking about history as a major.  Cool.

“But I’m not sure what I will tell my parents,” she said.

Ah. Parents.

Yes, what self-respecting parent would want their child to go off to college to major in history, particularly if they aren’t going to teach? That seems about as productive as collecting snow globes. Only you have to pay a hefty tuition fee to do it.

I understand the concern. History does not seem to be practical. It does not seem to lead to any clear jobs, other than teaching history to students who don’t know why they should be taking a history class.

You might guess that I have a lot to say about this. It is hard, however, to unpack it all in a blog post. So let me tell you what I told my student: read Why Study History? by John Fea, a historian at Messiah College.

He describes many reasons for studying history.  He explains what goes into the academic study of history. And he has a wonderful little chapter for college students and parents alike, entitled “So What Can You Do With a History Major?”

What can you do with a history major? Here is a hint: Fea discusses a former student of his who is working in a hospital in Malawi, explaining she is an agent of change who got her job “because and not in spite of the fact that she was a history major in college.” Is that strange? No. I see this in many of my former students: a good history education can actually make you better at your calling, whatever it may be.

Read the entire post here.

One thought on “How Should I Tell My Parents That I Want to Major in History?

  1. This post resonates with me because my parents sent me to college to become either a labor mediator or human resources professional, i.e. someone with a college degree that had a clearly defined set of marketable skills. Like many teenagers, I shook my head, said “sure” and went off to college.

    In college, I came into my own and figured out that I really wanted to be a history major. I knew my tuition-paying parents would be upset so I went to career services and started looking into internships that would lead to practical skills. I found one with the National Park Service. After I secured my internship, I called my parents and told them the news.

    My parents were upset. They didn't understand how a history degree would prepare me for gainful employment. I think they pictured me flushing my tuition dollars down the drain. They appreciated the NPS internship, but I think the biggest issue was I had changed their dreams for me.

    Mom and Dad eventually came around. Today, they love that I am a professional historian and we have a good relationship, but my initial decision to follow my own path caused friction.

    I think the advice I would give to any undergrad would be you have to follow your own path. If you know that being a history major is what you want to do and who you are meant to be, then you should become a history major. We history majors acquire skills in writing, research, and analytical thinking that are prized by the workforce. We just have to be a bit more creative about how we market our degrees than people with other majors. Also, your parents love you and they will eventually come around. In the end, I think most parents just want their kids to be happy and lead fulfilling lives.

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