As both an undergraduate student and in four years of graduate school, I have been asked a number of times what I planned to do with my degree by people that were variously well meaning, genuinely curious and at times condescending or critical. I myself have sometimes wondered if by dedicating my time to studying and teaching history, I was engaging in something frivolous or self-indulgent, less useful to society than say a law or medical degree. But after nearly four years of graduate study and three of working as a teaching assistant, I have really come to see the public value of the academic study of history and I think it is one that we must forcefully assert especially in these turbulent times of funding cuts, furloughs and anti-intellectualism.
Several recent posts on History Compass Exchanges speak to this issue. Angela Sutton’s recent post “History Pays for Itself” makes the important point that although it is often presumed that history departments along with other humanities and social sciences are subsidized by science and engineering, in fact they raise more revenue from tuition than they spend and may be indirectly paying for the expensive laboratories and equipment needed by the hard sciences. As Sutton notes, it is important to correct such misapprehensions even as we are careful not to lose sight of the intrinsic value of the study of history. Shellen Xiao Wu’s post, “The Dollars and Cents of Higher Education” highlights the lack of consensus in the United States over whether higher education is a public good or a consumer product.
I firmly believe that higher education is a public good and that the study of history in particular provides important benefits. Learning history from a wide range of perspectives is important for citizenship, not only because it provides students with new insights into the past and provides historical context for contemporary issues but also because it teaches students valuable skills. As a teaching assistant and as a student I have seen first hand that the study of history helps to develop the ability to analyze arguments, express complex ideas, meet deadlines, address others with differing opinions respectfully and write clearly and persuasively, to name only the first things that come to mind. Particularly as a teacher of world and African history, I have seen students from the United States gain a wider viewpoint and rethink many of their preconceptions about the world outside of the United States. This is not to say that such skills can only be gained through the academic study of history but we should not lose sight of the important role that the study of history plays in preparing students for both their professional and civic lives after graduation. For these reasons and many others, the academic study of history is important, it matters and though I am probably preaching to the choir here, we must publicly make the case for the importance and relevance of both history and higher education.