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Why a History Degree Is More Important Now Than Ever

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Weeks before the 2020 presidential election, President Trump slammed how schools teach American history.

According to the president, we should "restore patriotic education to our schools" and students should learn a "pro-American" curriculum.

Trump's declaration raises key questions about the purpose of studying history — and why earning a history degree is more important now than ever.

History is about more than a list of facts. Studying the past is all about interpretation. Executive Director Grace Leatherman at the National Council for History Education pointed out what's missing from Trump's demand for "patriotic education": "It's important that students understand there are multiple interpretations of history, as well as multiple perspectives," says Leatherman.

History majors learn how to interpret sources, critically analyze arguments, and evaluate competing interpretations. These very skills make history one of the most valuable majors today.

What You Can Learn With a History Major

History majors study everything from ancient Sumeria to modern American politics. In between, they learn about the code of ethics for medieval knights, the revolutionaries who toppled governments, and the protest movements that expanded civil rights.

Analyzing complex historical problems strengthens critical thinking skills.

Most history programs introduce majors to a variety of subfields. For example, majors may need to take a certain number of ancient, medieval, and modern courses. They may also take classes in the history of the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East.

In addition to studying different time periods and places, a history degree introduces students to environmental history, women's history, the history of science, and urban history. Many history departments offer unique classes, like the history of the witch trials, sports history, or the history of pandemics.

But history majors gain more than an appreciation for the past.

Whether students focus on ancient history, military history, American history, or another concentration, a history degree trains graduates to think differently. Why did the French Revolution tear down symbols of religion? What drove civil rights activists in the 1960s? Why did Thomas Hobbes see mankind as inherently violent? Answering these questions forces students to think about evidence, motivations, and context.

Analyzing complex historical problems strengthens critical thinking skills. Take, for example, competing interpretations for why the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century. One theory points to the wave of invasions across the weakening Germanic border. These invasions led to the first sack of Rome in 800 years.

Another theory points to the economy. Inflation, poor management, and trade deficits left the empire weakened. History majors can evaluate the evidence supporting both interpretations and reach a conclusion about which proves more persuasive. Or they can develop their own interpretation — maybe it was the lead poisoning in Rome's water pipes that crashed an empire.

What You Can Do With a History Degree

As for what you can do with a history degree, history graduates pursue careers in a wide variety of fields. According to a recent study, the top five fields for history majors are education, management, the legal field, administration, and sales. At least 10% of history graduates work in each of these five fields.

Popular Career Fields for History Graduates

History graduates also work in the tech industry, healthcare, financial services, and the media. For example, Alexis Ohanian, who cofounded Reddit, majored in history. "The value of critical thinking and communicating is something you use day in and day out," Ohanian told the The Observer in 2018.

When asked about the qualities of a successful job candidate, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow told a Stanford audience that she looks for people who can craft persuasive arguments and write well. Which major teaches those skills? According to Maddow, "History is kind of the king."

How the Field of History Has Evolved

When Donald Trump calls for "patriotic education," he voices a theory of history with long roots. According to Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, "The general natural tendency of reading good history must be, to fix in the minds of youth deep impressions of the beauty and usefulness of virtue of all kinds."

The field of history itself has evolved from the moralizing lessons promoted by Franklin. For generations, the study of history focused on "great men" — the Founding Fathers, the kings and generals, the conquerors and explorers. This perspective is captured by the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle, who argued, "The history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here."

People of color, women, enslaved people, infantry soldiers, and servants only appear infrequently on the pages of history books written before the mid-20th century.

Overwhelmingly, this approach to history centers on powerful white men. People of color, women, enslaved people, infantry soldiers, and servants only appear infrequently on the pages of history books written before the mid-20th century.

During the American Revolution, soldier Joseph Plumb Martin even complained about the obsession with these "great men." He wrote, "Great men get great praise; little men nothing... What could officers do without such men? Nothing at all."

Today, historical research has expanded its focus to include figures like Martin. The "total history" approach, pioneered by French historians in the 1940s, asks about workers as well as rulers. In the 1970s, Italian historians pushed for microhistory, reconstructing the lives of everyday people often left out of history.

By the late 20th century, the field of history was making a "cultural turn" — emphasizing culture over purely social or economic history.

Rather than centering Abraham Lincoln in the history of emancipation, they learn about enslaved and free Black people who fought against slavery.

The cultural turn changed the kinds of questions historians ask and history majors study. For example, instead of studying the Copernican theory simply as a leap forward in scientific understanding, a cultural history approach asks how the theory won supporters and why it became accepted truth. Instead of examining print history through significant publications, historians like Robert Darnton asked why a group of printer's apprentices in the 1730s massacred cats in Paris.

The many changes to the field of history have shifted the focus of a history degree. Today's history majors study marginalized and disenfranchised people. Rather than centering Abraham Lincoln in the history of emancipation, they learn about enslaved and free Black people who fought against slavery. Today's history majors also look at forces like the environment, technology, and disease to understand historical change.

As Abraham Lincoln himself said, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

The Future of History

Debates about education and American history were around before President Trump and will continue even after he leaves office.

In the mid-1990s, a Republican Senate voted against proposed National Endowment for the Humanities standards for teaching history. The standards, conservatives argued, spent too much time on America's flaws. In the mid-2010s, Republican state legislators made a similar argument about revisions to the Advanced Placement U.S. History test.

These changes follow shifts in the study of history. While history majors two generations ago studied the great men of the past, today's historians focus on women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. As historian Douglas Brinkley explains, "what [Trump] sees as a cultural war is just trying to open up the narrative to other peoples' experiences — not just white males."

Rather than treating history like a patriotic exercise, we should recognize how the study of history creates engaged citizens.

Rather than treating history like a patriotic exercise, we should recognize how the study of history creates engaged citizens.

Beyond the diverse subjects history majors study, a history degree builds the skills necessary for civic engagement and participation. When politicians from competing parties interpret economic data differently, history majors can evaluate both interpretations. When the Supreme Court rules in a landmark case, history majors can understand the ruling's implications. When a presidential candidate declares voter fraud after losing an election, history majors can weigh the evidence (or lack of evidence).

And when it's time to vote, history majors show up. According to a 2017 study by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, social science majors — including history majors — report the highest voter turnout of any discipline. That fact alone offers strong evidence for the value of earning a history degree.

Image of author Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

Header Image Credits: Thomas Barwick, Janet Fries, Ron Galella, Erika Stone, MPI/Stringer | Getty Images

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