So, I have a history degree. Two actually, a B.A. earned at Gettysburg College and an M.A. earned at Villanova. I'm very proud of them both. I also cringe when I hear of pundits talk of technical degrees as the be-all and end-all of education. WSJ's coverage about unemployment rates amongst my kind prompts me to think of what skills I have as a result of my academic history training. I can distill the most important skills to these:
- The inclination to triangulate evidence - I rarely act on just one bit of supporting information. I need three or more substantiations before I truly believe something. Perhaps this explains my resistance to simple Google searches and Wikipedia. It might also explain why I cycle through my news sources daily, hesitant to rely on any one.
- The inclination to credit where I found something - which might annoy those I'm with. I cannot just pass on someone else's ideas as my own, and I habitually say "according to" when I share ideas I came across (or even jokes I've heard).
- Humility in asserting historical truth - Historians act with the knowledge that we'll never be absolutely certain that something happened the way we think it did. It's impossible to recreate and capture every detail of an important event or trend. And we author historical works that will someday be challenged by others.
- Oh, and can I write (though my blog posts might not be the best evidence of this).
Those of us who have earned liberal arts degrees in the humanities learned a discipline, internalizing its lessons and methods. That discipline frames what we do, whether what that is is directly related to the title of our B.A. or not.
Ironically, I will next year be teaching courses that aren't historical at all. I'll be a teacher of civics and education, subject areas I've largely taught myself. The discipline I learned as a historian informs my ability to do that.
When I say farewell to my students at the end of their 12th grade year, I urge them to find a degree program that they love and build expertise in it. Expertise, evinced by sophisticated scholarship and a good GPA, will always have a market value, which skills (necessities in economic life) might not always have.
The practical skills of which so much is made now come and go. I'm right now typing on a program that with a computer that not too long ago would have been something only the highly trained could use. Who is to say that the computer programming and financial aptitude touted so much today won't become part of the standard k-12 curriculum someday in the future.
What I say now for history is applicable to so many other fields: in learning the discipline of history, I came into touch the with thoughts, dreams, and demons of people long gone. That gives me a grounding and a proclivity to think that informs what I do, and what I can offer to my employer and my community. We call fields of studies like mine humanities for a reason, because it does connect those of us venturing into the future with what in the past has made us what we are.