We haz mad skillz

What was your major, Dave?

In a column full of conventional “wisdom” in which David Brooks outlines a hypothetical angry voter, he writes this in filling in “Ben’s” biography:

Ben would like to have majored in history, but he needed a skill so he studied hotel management. Others spent their college years partying, but Ben worked hard. After graduation, he got a job with a hotel chain. A few years later, he got a different job and then a different one.

It’s not the central point of Brooks’s column, but I can’t let this dig at history majors slide by.  I’ve already described the value my senior seminar students found in being a history major at Baa Ram U.  How would you add to that?  (We might expand that to humanities majors in general, rather than just limit this discussion to history.)  No digs at Hotel Mangement majors, please!

0 thoughts on “We haz mad skillz

  1. My brother majored in history (military history, specifically) and now has a nice job with the State Department. Clearly he managed to pick up SOME sort of “skill” in his four years. 🙂


  2. Someone retweeeted a fun comment this spring from a blog that having a doctorate in history is like having a black belt in research. I agree and would argue that even a B.A. in history is evidence that you’ve learned how to research and evaluate information that can apply in so many different ways.

    Our students can come out of the program with amazing skills in research, writing and public speaking. They understand how to make connections across a variety of disciplines and sources of knowledge to pull together convincing arguments that stand them in good stead in the business world as well as in teaching and public service jobs.

    The tough reality is that you can’t guarantee graduates a job “as” a historian. (But we never did!) However, I tell students that you can find a lot of great jobs using your skills developed while studying history. Especially those students who’ve paired up this degree program with real facility in a second language, they’ll find themselves in a great position to make their mark in the wider world!


  3. I agree with Janice; there are no guarantees about jobs ever, but a history major is a strong liberal arts major that’s going to provide students with solid skills in finding and critically evaluating all sorts of information, and then communicating clearly about it.

    If the hypothetical Ben had been a history major, he’d be perhaps more likely to be able to critically evaluate political issues and make better choices. He might still be angry, but he’d be angry in ways that might facilitate a more positive change.


  4. “…He now has a regular paycheck and a house and family. But he knows that that might be taken away from him at any moment in this economy. Sometimes he calls in sick (he’s good at his job, but he doesn’t really like it), and stays home all day watching the History Channel and wondering whether he should go back to school. He really loved reading about that stuff.”


  5. With all the self congratulation there are deeper issues of concern. Engineers and lawyers make more money than English Lit majors. Furthermore, should our universities reflect in 2010 the way they were structured in 1930?

    My feeling is that there are upcoming disciplines and new knowledge troves that fall between academic chairs. These potentially are new departments. The latter will attract students, some of them away from the traditional departments.

    Personally, I belong to a department to which I belonged 20 years ago, but my current fit is questionable.


  6. “Engineers and lawyers make more money than English Lit majors.”

    Um, a lot of people who go to law school major in English as undergraduates. And the success rate for English majors who apply to law school is *higher* than for those who major in “pre-law” (where such majors exist). Also, it’s worth noting that English Studies, as a discipline, includes a lot more than the study of literature, and some fields in English are in high demand both inside and outside the ivory tower.

    Traditional liberal arts undergraduate majors (History, philosophy, English, etc.) give a person translatable skills in thinking, writing, speaking, and interpretation – flexible skills. They do not train a person for a particular job in a particular economy, though they do give skills that can translate to a variety of jobs within a particular economy.

    The funniest thing to me about Brooks’ claims about History majors is that he seems to imply that history majors spend their college years partying? None of the history majors I’ve ever known (when I was a student or now that I’m a professor) appear to be these total party animals. Do I just lack exposure to the rock-n-roll lifestyle of those who major in history?


  7. I don’t think Brooks was taking a dig at History. Given what he’s written elsewhere about parenting styles and life outcomes, Brooks would clearly encourage Ben to be a History major in the mold of upper class success. The problem is that Ben himself, child of the working class, isn’t getting the message, so kudos to you for trying to create a coherent message so that when the Ben’s of the world here “History, what are you going to do with that?” He can answer: “Whatever the hell I want.”

    I would say one of the most important skills that students learn in a good history class is how to deal with masses of information by: sorting, prioritizing, and analyzing information. The more glib response might be: History fine tunes your B.S. detector.


  8. The dude that runs Amazon UK has a history degree I believe (from my u/grad dept cause they like to plug it); the last UK Prime Minister (and perhaps the current as well) both had history degrees and the last one had a PhD in history. In fact, I can think of a whole whack of Members of Parliament with history degrees. I also have friends from u/grad who work in banking, and lots of areas of business. Tranferrable skillz.


  9. If Ben had majored in history and gone into high school teaching, he would have much greater job security than he ever will at any level of employment in the hospitality industry. As a history teacher, he might also recognize that part of what is making people angry is their job and economic insecurity in a globalized economy run by predator “capitalists” who socialize the risk but have privatized the profits. Plus, he could look forward to buying and running a Bed and Breakfast somewhere in his retirement after teaching for 20-30 years. (Or earning a Ph.D. in history. Or whatever!)

    If Brooks studied History at Chicago, then we should use him as an example of what our students can do by majoring in history. They, too, can aspire to be overpaid for a$$hattery on the op-ed pages of the New York Times!

    (Today’s column was hardly the dumbest he’s written. So, credit where credit is due–this is an analysis of his Lifetime Achievement in a$$hattery.)


  10. You know, during advising and freshmen registration, I’ve noticed that a lot of students feel like they have to choose their major based on some vocational outcome. I think some of it comes from the parents/David Brooks types (“History major, what are you going to do with that?”). This might seem like churlishness on the part of the parents, but its not. They want their kid to safely make the leap into adulthood or at least land a steady job.

    But I also think it comes from a very real cost-benefit analysis that the student has to do. If you are going to school for four years (that could stretch into five), you are going to have some student debt, you want to walk away with something that society values and you want a degree that will get you a job (to pay off the debt). So sure, to a nineteen year old, a degree like accounting or hotel management sounds like more of a sure thing than History or English.

    I actively try to discourage students from thinking of themselves as potential High School History Teachers Historiann. In the upper Midwest we have an over supply. Every year Woebegone State graduates way more Social Studies History Teaching majors than there are jobs. I think thats the worst possible vocational delusion right now, short of earning a PhD in History and expecting to have your pick of R1 jobs.


  11. Dr. Crazy
    Huzzah for the humanities majors ! A while back I was catching up with two other Fratguys from back in the day. Among us 2 MD’s and 1 JD. All English majors. The more I talk with my colleagues the more I wish they had all studied at least some of the rudiments of using written English as means of communication.

    As far as the accusation that “Others spent their years partying” goes, I would not even dignify it with a rebuttal. You Mr Brooks spent the early aughts partying. Where was the high dudgeon when Reagan, Bush 1 and Bush 2 were spending us into oblivion ?


  12. PS,
    Big thanks to all you Humanities perseffers for teaching me how to think crtitically, cause that wasn’t happening in the seciences.


  13. Historiann,
    Did you miss this?

    Besides, most HS history teachers won’t have history degrees, they’ll have ed degrees. Sad but true but such is the path to certification. And chances are ze won’t be able to compete for the independent school job because the minimum requirement these days is an MA. Tell them to become a) a paralegal to see if they want to go to law school b) find a finance training program (Goldman Sachs for years only hired from Harvard’s history department for their training program c) advertising – I’ve never met anybody who had any kind of job in advertising who had a degree in it. They all had degrees in psych, history, art, or English. In other words, any field where thinking and persuading matter.


  14. Western Dave–I saw that. But remember: Ben probably graduated 15 or 20 years ago now. In Colorado, there’s been a big push to make sure that teachers are trained in their subject fields if they teach 7-12 grades. We have a track in our History major for “social studies teaching,” in which they get a good, broad social studies background, ed courses, plus 24 credits of history for their history major. I assumed it was that way everywhere–but maybe not.

    I agree with you about advertising or other fields. But, it’s just harder to get a job now in anything.


  15. David Brooks is a tool.

    On another note, it’s a shame we can’t encourage people to double major within a reasonable amount of time in college. I could see myself being the one to say “history major? what are you going to do with that?” But that doesn’t mean I don’t think people shouldn’t study history. Not to mention, getting a degree in X may not be the most practical path to a vocational career to begin with.

    And about engineers/lawyers making more…it really depends. Plenty of english lit majors may end up going into sales, or software, or be high paid toolbags for newspapers. Being an engineer doesn’t necessarily pay that much, it has the potential to do so if you make it into mgmt but obviously that’s not everyone, same as the english lit major becoming a high paid journalist isn’t everyone. For the moment engineering may seem more stable, but that could change in an instant. I know a lot of out of work lawyers right now.


  16. I think the piece reads more as refracted autobiography than as biography–it’s basically free indirect discourse, in that it conveys Ben’s understandings of the events in his life, rather than DB’s. So DB may be on the hook for what “Ben” thinks about history, but only in the sense that James Joyce could be held responsible for Leopold Bloom’s opinions.


  17. You’re wearing this bastard down, Historiann! Good work. Today (June 8), he comes out swinging for the dollarization value of the humanities major. Admittedly, his analysis gets murkier and murkier with every paragraph that he goes deeper into what he calls the “Big Shaggy,” but I think his change of major form will be coming over your transom in another day or two. I’d make him repeat the 202 course, personally.


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