By Dr. Zachary M. Schrag
Professor and Director of MA Program in History | Department of History and Art History
As the fall semester began, Robinson Professor Steven Pearlstein published a discouraging essay in the Washington Post. He reported conversations with his Mason Honors College students, many of whom were intrigued by the humanities but had been warned away from majoring in humanities fields by parents and other authority figures. “Some of the brightest students in Virginia had been misled,” he concluded, “by parents, the media, politicians and, alas, each other — into thinking that choosing English or history as a major would doom them to lives as impecunious schoolteachers.”
If majoring in the humanities truly required a vow of poverty, or if majoring in a so-called “STEM” field really guaranteed wealth and happiness, parents and politicians would be right to advise students to focus on quantitative learning. The truth is, however, that one’s choice of major is not as important as many believe. Led by Rob Townsend, who earned his PhD in history at Mason, the Humanities Indicators project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences has found that differences in employment and earnings between humanities majors and science majors are far smaller than, say, the difference between earning a degree and not earning one.
The reason is that like coding or math, humanities skills are career skills. Ask a professional about what they look for in a new hire, and you’ll likely get answers like “knowledge and understanding of democratic institutions and values,” “critical thinking and analytic reasoning,” and “problem solving in diverse settings.” All of these are skills that can be learned as well or better while studying English or history as while studying computer science or finance. To be sure, some employers will mention more technical skills, like database design or data mining. These too can be learned while studying history. Or they can be learned as a minor while majoring in a humanities field.
As Mason professor Stephen Fuller has shown, much of the future job growth in the Washington region may take place in various technology sectors. But technology firms don’t just need coders; they need managers, sales staff, consultants, and designers, and many of them hire humanities graduates for these roles. And however impressive the growth in these tech sectors, the dominant employers in the region will continue to be the federal government and the vast web of contractors, lobbying firms, think tanks, and professional associations that work with it. All of these employers need workers who can ask hard questions, read critically, and write compelling arguments.
Historians are happy to explain the practical value of the skills they teach. Nationwide, the American Historical Association is collecting stories of history majors who have built satisfying careers in fields as diverse as policy, logistics, and nursing. Closer to home, my fellow Mason history professors remind students that every essay is an exercise in synthesizing information from a broad range of sources and weighing competing claims, and that every research paper provides practice in project management. Our website features stories from alumni, some of whom have pursued history as a career, while others focus on fields as diverse as management consulting or writing for a nonprofit. As one alumnus puts it, “the next time someone asks what you plan on doing with your History major, I suggest responding with this: ‘Tell me what I cannot do with it.’”
Our problem is that we often lack the chance even to make this case. Whether they come from high schools or community colleges, too many students arrive at Mason having already ruled out a major in the humanities. They deserve the chance to make an informed choice.
President Cabrera and the university leadership are right to celebrate the blossoming of science at Mason. But the president oversimplified matters when, last year, he suggested to students that “if you’re open to a number of choices, computer science and STEM, that’s where the jobs are today.” Yes, many jobs are there. But look at the record and you’ll find that humanities degrees also “educate students to become agents of positive change, to do or create jobs, to create value through government or business, public or private organizations, academia or the arts,” as the Mason IDEA instructs. Humanities, too, is where the jobs are today.