It is ironic that only a year after the Confederate battle flag was removed from the State House — after a heated public debate among South Carolinians over competing interpretations of our history — the academic major of history is in apparent decline among new freshmen at USC.
As Avery G. Wilkes explained, history, among other disciplines, is “losing” in comparison to the “winners” — the science, technology, engineering and business majors that attract incoming students wanting lucrative careers (“More USC students focusing on majors that promise lucrative futures,” Thursday).
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Hmmm. I guess we solved the problem of the past after the flag came down. Now we South Carolinians can move along, and think only about the future in our professional and personal lives.
I am joking, of course. But my fellow history professors and I often hear the arguments against the history major: It’s not practical; you’ll never get a job; Starbucks has enough baristas.
Try telling that to Ted Turner (founder of CNN, classics major), Stewart Butterfield (founder of Flickr, philosophy major) and Lloyd Blankfein (former CEO of Goldman Sachs, history major). What did they ever do with their lives?
The fact is that history, and the other humanities (English, philosophy, et cetera) teach critical thinking. We teach how to process and analyze information. We teach about other cultures, beneficial for any would-be international banker wanting to work in France or China. And even if you read the value of a college education in terms of lifetime earnings, the situation isn’t as dire as we think.
As a professor of working-class background, I am sensitive to parents’ and students’ concerns about the high cost of a university education, getting jobs after graduation, paying off loans and buying a house or having children. My parents and I shouldered heavy burdens in paying for college. My colleagues know that our students often struggle with work and financial insecurity.
And we fiercely believe in the value of the history major, and in the ability of all our majors — as true Gamecocks — to have “no limits” in their futures, even if they’ve devoted their college experience to studying the past.
As I tell students in my introductory European civilization class, history is a field to which every human belongs. History raises questions painfully alive today. Many know that the ancient Greeks “invented” democracy. Why, though, did democracy collapse in the Greek world, and what does that collapse tell modern Americans? What does it mean that a king from the backwater of Macedonia in the fourth-century B.C. — Alexander the Great — created through military conquest a world with “multiculturalism” and “globalism”? Why has every empire (Persian, Roman, Ottoman, British and more) failed? What does Abraham Lincoln tell us about “third-party” presidential candidates? Why did Portugal suddenly appear on the political and economic scene at the end of the Middle Ages, and establish the first market in Europe for slaves seized from west Africa?
These are questions that pertain to the reality of all citizens of South Carolina today, and these events have influenced and shaped how we all live. Every one of us, and the world in which we dwell, is bound up with history — the products of events, accidents and forces in the past. At the same time, every one of us has a history, and we are all agents in choosing how to live in that world, better armed with knowledge of the past.
We can’t promise that all our history majors will be rich. (No major can.) We can promise that they will be enriched — as engaged, aware citizens, conscious of their place in the broader world and how they fit within and can effect it. They will know more about their state, nation and world. They will know how to use the past as a tool for the future.
They will know better who they are.
And to adapt a bit an old adage: They will show that those who study, and write, and argue over, and remember history are winners.
Dr. Ames is the chair of the USC Department of History; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.