Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why History? Four Careers You Might Want To Think About Pursuing With A History Major

There's nothing like the Early American survey to
help you decide on the perfect spring display.
If you are as old as I am, you remember when MARHO, the editorial collective that publishes the Radical History Review, used to hand out matchbooks at the history meetings that said:  "Be A Historian.  Make Big Money."  Because this is, sadly, no longer true, every once in a while the history department at Zenith holds an event for prospective and current majors where we try to explain the unique applications of the history major.  (Truth in advertising:  I have no idea why someone should be a history major.  I was an English major, ok?)  This usually involves bringing a few graduates back to Zenith, people who live in what our undergraduates like to call The Real World.  A prerequisite for getting one of these coveted invitations is to have done something other than be a history professor and being able to explain why being a history major matters to doing That Thing.  We do this to recruit new history majors and cheer up the ones we have.  I think the hidden agenda also might be to deflect our poor, innocent students (who joined us because they like to read, or because they are smitten with World War II) from trying to become history professors and unwittingly risking a terrible fate as lifetime inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys.

So I did a little research (something you can learn as a history major!) to find successful folks who got the most out of being a history major, and I came up with four people who I would love to invite to a history majors' soiree.

Virginia A. Phillips, the District Court judge who just issued an injunction that orders the Department of Defense to stop enforcing Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Not only was Phillips a history major, but she got herself a history husband in the process.  According to SignOn San Diego,  "At the end of her first year of law school, she married John A. Phillips, a rising star on the University of California Riverside’s faculty. Seven years older than his bride, Phillips had been hired in 1976 as a history professor at the age of 26. No one interviewed for this story could remember how the couple met, but his first years in the history department coincided with her time as a history major." And you are insinuating -- what?

Robert Kagan, who has, among his many accomplishments, served as a foreign policy advisor to Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY), and to Senator John McCain (R-AZ) during his recent campaign for President, was a history major at Yale.  We have to admit here that Kagan also has a Ph.D. in history, perhaps a prerequisite to certain kinds of Beltway action, and an example of how to convert that degree to a career without ever being interviewed at the AHA!  The author of several books, including Of Paradise and Power:  America and Europe in the New World Order (2003), Kagan is currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which I bet employs many history majors.

Martha Stewart was a history major. She got there by a rather complicated route (according to my fabulous research assistant Wiki P. Dia) which included a teenage stint as a model for the American Tobacco Company's "I'd Rather Fight Than Switch" campaign on behalf of their Tareyton brand.  You know the one:  women happily enjoying a cigarette, bearing a big black eye from some insensitive lout of a political science major having tried to make them "switch"? OK, so there was no such thing as feminist history yet:  cut the woman a break for having posed for ads best known for having rendered domestic violence and cancer hilarious.  Attending Barnard College on a partial scholarship, Stewart "intended to major in chemistry, but switched to art and European history, and later architectural history. It was around this time that she met and later married Andrew Stewart, on July 1, 1961. She left Barnard but continued her moderately successful modeling career, while her husband finished his law degree at Yale Law School. She returned to Barnard a year later, to graduate with a double major in History and Architectural History."

David Brooks who went to the public school I would have gone to had I not gone to private school, and would have graduated the year ahead of me, was a history major at the University of Chicago.  Brooks, a conservative commentator for almost everyone, made his argument for being a history major in an opaque article last summer about what he calls The Big Shaggy, by which I believe he means chaotic emotions that will be unknowable if you haven't read Tacitus or Jane Austen.  The Atlantic Wire's John Hudson thought Brooks was alluding to "some kind of secular stand-in for the soul."  I think maybe David has, like many of us, had an extremely embarrassing affair at some point, and was helped by having been a history major.  Why do I think this?  The upshot of his argument on behalf of the humanities, written in the aftermath of the married governor of South Carolina having run down to Rio-By-The Sea-O to visit his new love (but having said he was nipping down the Appalachian trail for a quart of milk), was that majoring in history or English, while it won't necessarily result in a career, might keep a person from self-destructing should s/he manage to acquire a career.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

You are putting forward Kagan and Brooks as examples of the good things that people can do with history degrees? Kagan the insane imperialist warmonger and Brooks the neofeudal far-right-wing apologist? For realz?

Am I missing some satirical trope in this post? Cause if I were a historian, I would feel about those scumbags as I do as a medical school professor about moral degenerate physicians like Rand Paul.

Anonymous said...

"majoring in history or English, while it won't necessarily result in a career, might keep a person from self-destructing should s/he manage to acquire a career. "

I really want this to be on our brochures for our upcoming majors' fair :)

Tenured Radical said...

Useful skill set, no? And CPP -- "satirical trope"? Yeah, baby! Pretty good for a science dude!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Thank fucken godde! For a second there, I thought you went off the fucken deep ende!

Anonymous said...

David Brooks? Yes, I have a lot of students who think he is a deep, deep thinker. Just kill me now.


Janice said...

A completely undocumented but amusingly long list of famous history majors:

Pat Robertson? Oh, joy.

Historiann said...

I need to take my contacts out pronto, because I just read Janice's comment and thought it said at the end, "Paul Robeson" instead of "Pat Robertson," and my first thought was, "what's so bad about Paul Robeson having been a History major?"

Yes on your interpretation of Brooks's weird column. That's exactly what I thought when I read it. "Dude has had an affair, it's breaking up for whatever reason, and this is the result."

Who knew that former history majors were so sexxay?

WorstProfEver said...

Good list, but as you point out "being able to explain why being a history major matters" is the most important thing -- and it's getting harder and harder to convince people (read HR depts.) to listen to the crazy idea that history is applicable.

It always steamed me to see our history graduates lose jobs to Government and Poly Sci majors. Like history doesn't those topics already? All too often it takes a JD or an obsessive ego to "make it work" these days, so I started to feel like I was lying to the undergraduates when I told them history was going to do much for them.

Anonymous said...

I would hasten to add that all of your picks were products of elite Northeastern schools. Is there no hope for those of us who went to non-elites in different parts of the country and majored in history? Surely you can think of one?

Tenured Radical said...

Gee Anonymous, wanna help out?