By Fred Johnson
It makes sense, and I absolutely understand. In today’s twelve easy payment, no money down, reality [non-reality] TV, Facebook “Like,” “Friend,” “Poke,” OMG, #Whatever world, it seems that knowing, understanding, valuing, and majoring in History is an odd choice, maybe even foolish. Of course, historians have long insisted that the skills learned from studying history are the real treasures of the discipline. Still, with college costs burdening family budgets and parents wanting their students to pursue majors that transfer quickly into jobs, touting History as a great choice for a commoditized employment market is a tough sell. Okay, fair enough.
So rather than dash into the strong headwinds of opinion which have long insisted that studying history has little practical value for the “real” world, it’s more productive to examine if, and how, the “real” world has any practical value for history. As a young Marine Corps 2nd Lieutenant who was responsible for the lives of the Marines I commanded, there wasn’t a day when history didn’t come to my rescue. With more enthusiasm than experience and more cockiness than common sense, the skills of research, information assessment, precise question development, facilitation, public speaking, team-building, and leadership that I learned as a History major helped me succeed. Period! The decisions I made by employing the skills taught by history had to be right because if they weren’t, people died.
Senior officers understood that “wet behind the ears” 2nd Lieutenants made mistakes, but they expected those mistakes to be few, widely spaced apart, and steadily decreasing in number. Frankly, the content of my favorite historical topics didn’t offer solutions to my immediate daily problems. After all, it was history. On the other hand, the process of studying and learning that content, developing the oral and written communication skills needed to articulate it, and refining the critical thinking essential for success in any field, anytime, anywhere were gifts that the historical content gave and has continued to give.
While working as a Training Coordinator at an an aircraft wheel and brake manufacturer, my co-workers had little interest in, or use, for history. After all, the product was aircraft wheels and brakes and history was, well, history. The information I taught at the company had to be conceptually precise whether it was related to chemistry and physics or federal and international standards for quality performance and safety.
I wasn’t particularly qualified to work in a manufacturing facility that used high-tech Computer Numerically Controlled [CNC] machines to produce aircraft wheels and brakes. I wasn’t particularly qualified to give instruction on how to operate those machines, teach the techniques for chemically treating aluminum and steel, or provide detailed guidance for the Carbon Vapor Deposition/Carbon Vapor Infiltration [CVD/CVI] processing of our most expensive brakes. My knowledge gap in all those areas was filled by employing the investigative research, source identification, information analysis, and writing skills learned from studying history. My ability to teach classes on those and many other high tech subjects resulted from oral skills that had been strengthened through class discussions, public presentations, panel participation, and orally defending history papers.
Winning the respect and confidence of our talented mechanical and electrical engineers resulted from possessing the skills to research, analyze, and blend into multilevel instruction the work they did as it related to the work of our brilliant machine operators on the shop floor. There was no room for failure because, for those who fly commercial airliners and those who manufacture the wheels and brakes those aircraft land on, there’s no tolerance for a bad landing. None!
It wasn’t until coming to the apparently “not real” world of Hope College to teach history that I finally used history purely for history. When telling students that the skills and expertise I learned from history supported me, empowered me, and, frankly, kept me employed in every non-history job I’ve ever had, their eyes fill with understandable doubt. For even in an institution dedicated to exploring and nurturing the spirit and the intellect to develop whole human beings [rather than merely graduating more highly skilled employees] there’s tremendous pressure for scholars to chase majors that will get them a job. That’s shortsighted, but it is what it is.
The reality of the commoditized workplace offers assurances that there’ll always be a need for those aspiring to be mere employees. On the other hand, for those who seek to both get a job and have a vocation; for those who’d like to develop skills that’ll help them succeed in just about any occupation, anywhere, anytime; for those who dare to risk learning a discipline that will enrich their lives and vicariously impart the traits of leadership; for anyone who desires to learn writing skills that will get noticed and earn promotions; for the few who want to become dynamic public speakers of great influence; for those wise enough to know that the key to future prosperity lies in mastering knowledge of the past; for those who seek to refine their understanding about the dynamics of teamwork and collaboration; for citizens who prefer knowledge and facts to the toxic bamboozling of pundits. For those looking to get the biggest bang for every tuition dollar spent in their quest for a college degree, majoring in History will yield a powerful dividend in that area the commoditized workplace knows so well: ROI – Return on the Investment.