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Why Study History?

People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. Given all the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has been? Given all the desirable and available branches of knowledge, why insist—as most American educational programs do—on a good bit of history? And why urge many students to study even more history than they are required to?

Any subject of study needs justification: its advocates must explain why it is worth attention. Most widely accepted subjects—and history is certainly one of them—attract some people who simply like the information and modes of thought involved. But audiences less spontaneously drawn to the subject and more doubtful about why to bother need to know what the purpose is.

Historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals. In a society that quite correctly expects education to serve useful purposes, the functions of history can seem more difficult to define than those of engineering or medicine. History is in fact very useful, actually indispensable, but the products of historical study are less tangible, sometimes less immediate, than those that stem from some other disciplines.

In the past history has been justified for reasons we would no longer accept. For instance, one of the reasons history holds its place in current education is because earlier leaders believed that a knowledge of certain historical facts helped distinguish the educated from the uneducated; the person who could reel off the date of the Norman conquest of England (1066) or the name of the person who came up with the theory of evolution at about the same time that Darwin did (Wallace) was deemed superior—a better candidate for law school or even a business promotion. Knowledge of historical facts has been used as a screening device in many societies, from China to the United States, and the habit is still with us to some extent. Unfortunately, this use can encourage mindless memorization—a real but not very appealing aspect of the discipline.

History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty. There are many ways to discuss the real functions of the subject—as there are many different historical talents and many different paths to historical meaning. All definitions of history's utility, however, rely on two fundamental facts.

What can you do with an undergraduate degree in history?

Many, many things

As a liberal arts major, of course, the world is your oyster and you can consider a multitude of careers.

Among the jobs you can consider are: advertising executive, analyst, archivist, broadcaster, campaign worker, consultant, congressional aide, editor, foreign service officer, foundation staffer, information specialist, intelligence agent, journalist, legal assistant, lobbyist, personnel manager, public relations staffer, researcher, teacher . . . the list can be almost endless.

More specifically, though, with your degree in history you can be an educator, researcher, communicator or editor, information manager, advocate, or even a businessperson.

Here is a brief list of the career opportunities available to the undergraduate history major. This list is based on a very useful pamphlet, Careers for Students of History, written by Barbara J. Howe and jointly published by the American Historical Association and the National Council on Public History in 1989. While this online miniguide is based on this pamphlet (now out of print), with appropriate paraphrases from its text, it discusses also some of the new opportunities that became available to the history major in the recent past.

History BAs intending to pursue an advanced degree in history should read the excellent guide, Careers for Students of History, by Constance Schulz, Page Putnam Miller, Aaron Marrs, and Kevin Allen (2002: 64 pages, $7 members, $9 nonmembers. ISBN 0-87229-128-6).

Historians as Educators

Elementary Schools
Secondary Schools
Postsecondary Education
Historic Sites and Museums

Historians as Researchers

Museums and Historical Organizations
Cultural Resources Management and Historic Preservation
Think Tanks

Historians As Communicators

Writers and Editors
Journalists
Documentary Editors
Producers of Multimedia Material
Historians As Information Managers
Archivists
Records Managers
Librarians
Information Managers

Historians As Advocates

Lawyers and Paralegals
Litigation Support
Legislative Staff Work
Foundations

Historians in Businesses and Associations

Historians in Corporations
Contract Historians
Historians and Nonprofit Associations

For more information on all these career opportunities as well as other possibilities, consult the pamphlet referred to above and, of course, the career guidance office at your college or university.

-American Historical Association

 Last Published 3/10/11