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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why students major in history and not science

My 25 year-old niece offered to drive a friend of mine to the airport. As she was leaving she returned to get a bottle of water. She said she needed to stay hydrated. I asked her is she was planning on taking the long route through the Gobi Desert. She seemed confused. I told her to look up the 8 glasses of water a day myth on the web. She is a young lady who fights big corporations with her every breath yet she had bought into the bottled water company’s campaigns to make everyone carry water with them at all times. She was truly astonished to find out she was being manipulated.

I had less success with two other college students in recent weeks, both of whom had decided to be history majors because “history teaches you everything.” Now I have nothing against history or history majors, although I suspect that are way too many of them for the available historian jobs out there. But I couldn’t help but note that these kids had been sold history in the same way that my niece had been sold water. Every liberal arts college is desperately trying to stay relevant by selling the advantages of majoring in history or English to a group of young minds who have no idea how to make these decisions. The sellers look askance at practicality and tout students into their fields because if they don’t their departments would cease to exist. If no one majored in history there would be no history departments except at the most elite and wealthy universities.

Would this be a bad thing? It is easy to assume that this would be a terrible thing. We assume this because we see universities as repositories of scholarship and wisdom. If that is indeed what they all were all would be fine. But they are primarily places where young people start the rest of their lives. I asked one of these students what she loved about history and she replied that she really was only excited about astronomy. I asked why she wasn’t majoring in that (she attends a university where should do exactly that) and she replied “what could I do with that, discover another planet?”

There was no convincing her that the path she had chosen for herself was nuts. She planned to go to law school next – because it helps you think, she said– she does not intend to be a lawyer.

Universities are doing students a disservice by perpetuating ideas of what is worth studying that are really mostly intended to keep their most irrelevant faculty member employed. Science has been marketed badly and history has been marketed well. Business is marketed (and taught) terribly. Medicine is made so annoying to study in college that we have less doctors than we need. But we have plenty of history majors. Maybe it would be a good idea if universities stopped looking out for their own needs and starting acting more on helping students make decisions that are right for them and their actual areas of interest.

Of course this won’t happen. Faculties run universities and faculties are always interested primarily in maintaining the status quo.

1 comment:

djfgreene said...

Wow! Faculties run universities?! As a faculty member and a historian, I'm very surprised to hear that because is this era of "no citizen without a college education," I don't and I'm sure the majority of my colleagues don't feel that we are running anything. It's seems that the administrators and boards of curators, regents, and others are running the universities. As for brainwashing students into thinking that history will teach them everything, that hasn't been my experience. As an area that has the lowest number of majors and graduates at my small Midwestern university, we don't make a habit of recruiting or encouraging students to major in our field if they don't have a passion for it or can see themselves as teachers, preachers or researchers. Of course our graduates can and do go on to more glamorous and better paying careers but we're not out recruiting students only to channel them into careers they are not suited for. I feel your frustration with education in the U.S. but don't dump on history. As you well know, students don't make these choices in a vacuum. Did you ask how their family felt about their choices?