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Saturday, August 7, 2010

"You'll need to know this when you get a job"

In my career as an instructor and as a TA in history (usually American history), I grew increasingly usually reluctant to lecture students the virtues of studying history. In particular, I was always hesitant, and became even more so, to claim that the skills undergraduate history courses help teach were transferable to jobs.*

There were/are two main reasons for this. First, I have never been in a position to hire anyone, and I don't have firsthand knowledge of what employers look for. I know people who are or have been in hiring positions, and at least a few of them do state that such things like being able to write well, think clearly and logically, and know how to process a lot of information from various sources (skills which history courses, at their best, help inculcate or strengthen). But I have never been in a position myself to know how true this is. I suppose, without knowing, that the hiring process itself does not make it clear who has such skills beyond the normal things one looks at in an application, a resume, or an interview.

Second, every job I have had outside of academia--and I have had quite a few, although not as much, probably, as most people--has been in some degree entry level in that it did not nominally require any more than a high school diploma. One can be "only" a high school graduate and do well at these jobs, which is not to say that they are "unskilled." In fact, one of the things I noticed at my very first job--at a fast food restaurant--was how skilled one had to be in order to do what a lot of my high school and middle school teachers had derided as merely "flipping burgers." Just because those skills were not formally acquired in a university (or, for that matter, in an apprenticeship program for trades like plumbing or electrical work) does not mean that they do not have a value in themselves. I have a hard time telling my students, with a straight face, that when they graduate, they will "need to have these skills" when usually they did not apply in the type of jobs I used to have.

The reasons my experiences are varied, I admit, probably have at least as much to do with my own priorities as they do with whether the skills one learns as liberal arts major are marketable outside of academia. Simply put, I'm really not that ambitious, or at least haven't been in the past when it's come to looking for jobs. In my more idle moments, I like the idea of being an important person who works for the government, for an important firm, or for an enterprise that is profitable to those who work there but that officially disavows a profit motive for tax purposes nonprofit. But in practice, I have been, rightly or wrongly, content with more modest jobs. But who knows? Maybe I'll be ambitious some day.

I don't write any of this to say that the skills that history courses supposedly impart or help develop are not worth anything. Nor do I say, right here and now, that the value of learning history for the sake of learning history is not all it is cracked up to be by historians and even non-historians (even though I tend to believe that). But I think we should be more modest before we, especially those like me who have never been in a supervisory position, give our students another unhelpful lecture they won't pay attention to anyway about how they need to write this week's paper so they can get a job.

* There was a time when I criticized students for what I assumed to be their fixation simply to get a job and make money. I'm not in this blog post talking about those types of criticisms. But I would like to state here that I now believe those criticisms were unwarranted and inappropriate. I'll explain why I think so in another post.

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