In an interview for an internship at the Phi Beta Kappa Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the importance of a liberal arts education, I was asked: “How do you feel about having to defend your history degree?” The interviewer clearly wanted to know my opinion on the statistical decline of history majors. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of history majors dropped 12 percent from 2012 to 2014. While history departments across the country debate the reasons for this precipitous fall, part of the problem is the erroneous belief that a history degree is not practical in today’s job market.
There is a misconception that a history degree can only be applied to a career in teaching or the field of public history. Many students major in history because they want to work at a museum or become historians. But while these are viable career choices, there are certainly more options.
Today’s job market prioritizes acquiring a transferable skill that can be applied to various fields. In 2013, the Association of American Colleges & Universities surveyed employers and found that a majority emphasized the importance of college graduates being proficient in skills such as written communication and critical thinking. Transferable skills gained by history majors include, but are not limited to the ability to research, synthesize vast amounts of information and construct effective written arguments.
In addition to the transferable skills, historical knowledge is certainly relevant to other professional fields. In the field of public policy, whether domestic or foreign, historical knowledge is important in understanding the development of a problem and considering different factors in finding a solution to that problem. It can help answer a fundamental question: How did we get here? For instance, it’s important to understand the various economic, social, political and policy historical developments that have led to the inequalities disproportionately faced by black people. In foreign policy, it is pertinent that policymakers understand the history and the culture of a particular region that they are involved in.
Professions that are not particularly dominated by historians could also benefit from employing more history graduates, because they may bring alternative perspectives to their field. For instance, economists and political scientists dominate public policy, and tend to emphasize the use of quantitative methods. While their usage of quantitative methods is certainly beneficial to policy scholarship, there are limitations. In health policy, quantitative methods are beneficial in ascertaining the current and projected health care costs of Medicare, Medicaid, health technology and pharmaceutical drug prices.
However, there are other questions that need to be asked, such as why are insurers, physicians and consumers make certain decisions, and what factors influence their decisions?
While it’s understandable that history departments want to produce future educators and public historians, it’s also important for history departments to be more vocal in conveying the value of the transferable skills inherent in a history degree to students and the broader community.
Leslie McNamara is a public policy graduate student specializing in health policy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.