Living History

It Takes Courage To Be A History Major


Today a young woman came to my office and said, “I’ve had a revelation.  I hate Biology.  Sure, I’ve always made good grades in it and I know doctors make a lot of money but I HATE studying it and I don’t want to be a doctor.  I love history and my government classes and I think I want to major in those two subjects.  And you know what…NOW I’m happy.”  At that point she stopped, smiled, and added, “And I’ve told my mother and she didn’t have a flip-out about it.”

I normally wouldn’t write about this moment—as gratifying as it was for me personally—because often it might not be that big of a deal; students are born to change their minds!  College should be about self-discovery, what classes they love and loathe, what majors they wish to pursue and what classes they might choose to just ‘dabble’ in for personal satisfaction.  But over this last semester we in the History Department have been hearing some very disturbing things.  Primarily, we keep hearing “Yeah, but there’s nothing you can do with a history major, so it would just be a waste of money.”

This isn’t true.  There are many jobs for which a history major provides excellent preparation.  Everyone thinks of teaching, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.  History is by far the best discipline to prepare a student for law school, or for graduate work in history or even in another area of the humanities.  It is a solid foundation for archival and library studies, museum work, and historic preservation.  Wofford history majors have gone on to be ministers, social workers, NPR writers, book editors, and journalists.  We have graduates who are now nurses and medical professionals.  And one of Wofford’s most famous and most successful graduates, George Dean Johnson, was (you guessed it) a history major, who has honored the late Professor Lewis P. Jones for his great example and scholarship.

So many people think history is about ‘memorizing dates’ or ‘knowing all the kings of England in order.’  It’s about ‘boring stories’ and ‘dry facts.’  Clearly, someone hasn’t been paying attention in class!  True, there are lots of names and dates and stories, but history is more—it’s a discipline, a way of thinking, a skill set of reading, analyzing, and interpreting data.  A historians is part detective, part artist, and all humanist.  Our job is to study mankind, in his savagery and civilization, his glory and his shame.  Are we just trying to cobble up enough facts to keep us from repeating the past?  Of course not!  But what we are doing—to borrow a favorite phrase from my favorite biologist—is cartography.  We are mapping the human experience.  It won’t tell us the future, but it will allow us to make connections and comparisons, to recognize trends and scout out new pathways.  It will warn us of dangers and challenge us to scale heights.  And how amazing is it that the map will never be finished, and we’ll be arguing and struggling over its exact shape, pitting our wits and our resources against time itself for as long as mankind endures?

Fine, parents grouse, but how’s all that going to pay back my $100,000 investment in my kid?

And this is where the courage comes in.  No one can predict the exact course of the economy over the next five, ten, or twenty years.  No person can say with certainty that any one major will lead to a job that will make a person wealthy.  When I was in school in the 1980s, it was all about the business degree.  Those of us who weren’t FSU SOB’s (School of Business) were mocked to high heaven.  Now many of those people are unemployed.  Their certainty in 1985 didn’t translate to vast wealth or lifetime employment; no person can be sure that what they choose to do as a 21 year old will be what they’re doing when they retire, or that they will always be financially successful.  Life, after all, is a mixture of personal ambition, lucky breaks, bad breaks, and unexpected journeys.

What is more predictable is happiness.  As students grow, they find what subject makes them happy.  They discover disciplines that engage them and light a fire within.  Thus my young woman glowed when she said ‘now I know.’  She admitted that her friends were aghast—how dare she turn aside from the Biology pathway, what was she thinking to give up on med school?  “There’s so much pressure here,” she told me, “everyone expects you to be a Biology major if you’re paying for Wofford.”  But that’s a distorted view of what Wofford is about and what a liberal arts education is about.  We aren’t the end of the path, we’re the start.  Almost every profession in the modern world requires training or further study; the best thing we at Wofford can provide is an intellectual foundation that is rich and varied and therefore so much stronger than any other bedrock on which to build a future.

The world will tell students otherwise.  The world in general—and many parents who are very loving and well-meaning—will insist that this degree or that degree is better or is a guaranteed path to success.  But it isn’t.  Nothing is given to us but this day.

It takes courage to study one’s own heart.  It takes a leap of faith to unroll the great map of history and start drawing in the sea monsters and the unseen isles, knowing that one day you will launch a vessel and head in their direction. It takes incredible courage to be a History Major.  Or a Biology Major.  Or a Religion, Physics, English, Psychology, Foreign Language, or Sociology Major.  It takes guts to be an educated person in a world that prefers ignorance, shallowness, and greed.

One thing I can say for Wofford students—they may be struggling, they may be sorting things out, they may be arguing with parents and friends and professors as they look to their futures.  Sometimes they say really silly things (like ‘no jobs for history majors’!) but usually they wise up as they move through their years at Wofford, getting smarter in so many ways.

For Terriers do not lack courage.

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One Comment to

“It Takes Courage To Be A History Major”

  1. On December 13th, 2012 at 3:33 pm Karen Rhodes Says:

    Amen! And some of us history graduates are 65 when we get our degrees! My use of my history degree? Writing books! There’s another great occupation for history majors.