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Pursuing History: The Benefits and How to Develop Your Interest in History

By Christine, IvyWise Premier College Admissions Counselor

Is the study of history – history? In recent years, only about 1% of college students graduate with a degree in history. In fact, between 2008 and 2017, the latest year with available data, the number of history majors has plummeted by nearly 30%. However, while many families might find more value in a STEM or business degree, there are a lot of benefits students can gain from a history, humanities degree, or liberal arts degree and there are a lot of ways for students to pursue those interests.

While graduates in other humanities programs, such as English, philosophy, and language studies, are dwindling, too, history has suffered the most. According to a recent study published in Perspectives on History, between 2011 and 2017, history, compared to all other disciplines, experienced the greatest decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded. Experts cite the Great Recession as a significant driver of this plunge, as students reacted to the financial crisis and its aftermath.

So, why study history? “The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to the laboratory of human experience,” writes historian Peter Stearns. He continues:

When we study it reasonable well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we merge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness….Between the inescapable minimum and the pleasure of deep commitment comes the history that, through cumulative skill in interpreting the unfolding human record, provides a real grasp of how the world works.

Importantly, studying history is also immensely practical. Using concrete employment and income data, Dr. Paul B. Sturtevant busts three myths about history majors. He persuasively demonstrates that they are not underemployed, unprepared for gainful employment, and underpaid. Indeed, history majors go on to careers in a variety of sectors such as business (e.g., in corporate finance and management) and law.

But can the history major be revived? While the effort must be multi-pronged, students play an enormous, arguably the most important, role. Indeed, high school is an ideal time to explore the subject, and below are a few helpful suggestions for how high-school students, and hopefully future historians, can pursue history.

  • Challenge yourself by taking rigorous, such as AP and honors, history courses at school. In addition, consider doubling up on interesting history electives and/or auditing online college courses through MOOC platforms such as Coursera and edX.
  • Build niche expertise by reading deeply on a specific subject, particularly books written by history professors, and research college courses’ syllabi for recommended readings. Interested in Chinese history? Begin with Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China. Wondering if politics in America has always been contentious? Consider Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. Want to glean lessons from the three decades-long war between Athens and Sparta? Dig into The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan.
  • Learn to how to do historical research, search for good sources, and think critically about the past, perhaps even drawing connections with today’s world. And there is no better way to learn than by working on a research paper, for class or, better yet, independently. This BBC handout offers a helpful primer on how to do historical research, and this Harvard Writing Center brief guides students through the process of writing a history paper.
  • Participate in history-focused activities, such as the National History Day and National History Bowl, and share the joy of learning history with peers by starting a history club at school.

Is there a future for the study of history? I believe so, because it is by knowing our past and understanding our shared human condition that we begin to see and forge together a path to toward our future. And in the process, may we nurture a new robust generation of history students and scholars.

At IvyWise we work with students interested in a variety of subjects, from STEM to history and the humanities. We can help students identify the programs and majors that are the best-fit for them and, ultimately, develop skills that will serve them through high school, college, and beyond. Need some help better defining your interests or determining if an academic track is the right choice for your goals? Contact us today for more information on our college counseling services.