Why Do I Need to Take History?

Posted on February 11, 2017


Well, if you know me a bit, you’ll think the old history prof is sounding off.

“You gotta take history or you’ll be an ignoramus, or worse.” Maybe a politician I’m thinking, but not saying it.

But I want to take up a larger issue, although I admit a partiality to history. It has been at the center of my professional life, I have been paid well, and the rewards of dealing with colleagues and students has been enormous.

No, I am addressing something larger than even history, which by definition covers everything that came before us, which is a pretty large canvas.

There is an animal out there—the classic liberal arts education—which has underscored and driven our culture and civilization. And it is now under attack and receding as the major component in our education, especially higher education.

Now don’t you engineers and chemists and accountants and computer programmers and medical doctors and bankers and truck drivers and tree surgeons and cooks and investment gurus drop out here.

“He’s going to tell us that English and poetry and history and foreign languages are key ingredients in our education.” Sigh. Why not just sign up for a major in poverty and unemployment?

Our piano teacher Hanna is right now searching for her first job after graduating with a major in music. Phewww, talk about a more useless degree than history.

But wait. Recent graduates who majored in the arts or humanities are actually sought after by potential employers looking nor for kids with technical, job-specific skills, but prepared in written and oral communication, problem solving and critical thinking for example. These are sometimes labeled today “soft skills” that mark a liberal arts education.

Don’t believe me? It’s just the old Prof soft peddling the outworn adage that a “liberal” education prepares you for life and that’s what higher education is all about.

And, besides, I’m a conservative not a liberal. I never liked history anyhow.

But what do the facts tell us? The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities was 5.4% in 2013. This is slightly higher than the 4.6% unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders across all disciplines, and significantly lower than the 9% for those with only a high school diploma. Or, let’s put it another way.

Humanities graduates may have a slightly harder time finding jobs than their colleagues in the health sciences, but they are still much more likely to find work than those with no college degree.

Well, how about salaries? Well, that’s easy. English majors make considerably less than engineers at the gate, but considerably more than high school graduates. And try this one.

While humanities and social science graduates earn less than their peers with degrees in professional fields upon graduation from college, by mid-career the earnings of humanities and social science graduates surpass those of graduates with professional degrees.

Where are we going here? Is there still some kind of residual and even hidden value in a liberal arts degree, where poetry is as esteemed as knowing your generals in the Civil War? The easy response is who cares? I can find all that stuff in an app on my iPhone.

That, let me gently suggest, is just information, not knowledge. And as we move into this area tenderly, stepping perhaps on the pragmatic, practical, acquisitive, capitalistic, individualistic American spirit, even knowledge is not enough. Why should I learn to conjugate verbs in Latin?

The second suggestion is that you then need wisdom to act on the knowledge you are building in your liberal arts curriculum. Wisdom comes from three sources I’ve learned: the great Wisdom literature of Scripture (read Proverbs for starters); your own experience; and the experiences of those who have been around longer than you and learned themselves to think and act wisely.

There you have it. BTW, Hanna our piano teacher about to graduate in May with a degree in music and got a job already, working as an intern/trainee at Belk’s in Franklin, Tennessee. She’s on her way, will make a great sales and marketing executive, and can do just as well on the piano. She has the right stuff with her humanities major.

And, thinking of the right stuff, my high school graduate son Carlton (Northridge) is now flying first officer in Hawker 400 jets for the largest jet charter company in the country, and he did it without a humanities degree. But he can take you in safely in snow and wind, down to minimums in St. Paul-Minneapolis in -17o weather.

We need both Carltons and Hannas in our complicated world, where skills and knowledge come from many sources. Add in the proverbial work ethic and you can see our future in their hands.

Published as “A Classics Liberal Arts Education is Still Valued” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Jan. 15, 2017

Posted in: Education, History