Gabriel Loiacono, who’s posted today at the Historical Society’s blog, clearly must have gotten up a few days ago and said, “I think I’ll make Rees feel guilty.” Or perhaps this was aimed at all of us in the historical profession:
I think that members of the AHA, the Historical Society, others, and I need to do more to make the world feel more oyster-like for history majors. Rocky, my student, has chosen a history major because he already believes in the innate value of studying history. But he also needs a job when he graduates, and he could use our help. I think he deserves our concerted efforts to show the rest of the world that he and other history majors will be great new hires, in a variety of professions.
Certainly, I agree in principle. I believe in historical knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but I also want to do more to make sure that our majors get jobs. This isn’t just philanthropy or empathy. It’s self-protection. If college doesn’t lead to employment, nobody will go to college and there will no longer be a need for people to teach history.
But then again, who’s going to listen to little old me? That’s not an excuse for inaction, that’s more an acknowledgement of reality. There are permanent structural changes going on in the economy right now that are destroying all kinds of professions, including mine. In many cases, the kinds of critical thinking skills that I teach are actively discouraged. Under these conditions, I think I can be of best use trying to teach students economic survival skills rather than talking employers I never meet into hiring people who can easily be replaced by desperate people on the other side of the world.* One of those survival skills would be the historical importance of trade unions. Telling an employer that my history major knows a lot about unions would be the absolute worst thing I can do.
Start with what you can change, I always say and that’s the people right in front of you every day. History majors do have great skills, but don’t sugar-coat reality for them. That includes telling the truth about grad school.
* See Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat. I hate the cheerleading about job destruction in the US, but the reporting is first rate.
Update: And now this comes flashing across my screen. Seriously, how on earth can we jawbone that away?