Advising Mom and Dad: History Majors and Family Worries

Anne Hyde, April 2013

On the eve of the millennium, I got my first request to talk to a student's dad about majoring in history. A worried young man sat in my office explaining that his parents had hoped he'd major in economics and that he knew his father would be especially concerned about his choice to major in history. The young man pleaded, "Can you call him and explain what I can do with a history major?" he asked. "Maybe if you talk to him, he'll let me major in history." I agreed, but his request concerned me on two levels. First, I was nervous because I really had no idea what to say. What could you do with a history major? Second, what did it mean that young people needed parental permission to choose a major?

So, I got the dad's phone number, made a list of the things I thought someone might "do" with a history major—a fairly lame list that included graduate study in history, law school, public history jobs, and K–12 teaching—and picked up the phone. I learned a lot from that conversation, but the dad did not. He'd already thought of the things I'd written down and wasn't impressed with the vast range of possibilities that history offered his son. He asked good questions about what our history major alumni did and the range of incomes they earned. I had a few anecdotal stories, but not much else. In the end, this student did major in history, but only because he did a much better job of talking to his parents about this decision than I did.

Since then, I've had scores of these family conversations. They start the moment first-year students sign up for a history course, intensify when students declare a major, and get really serious as graduation approaches. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all e-mail and call. Fortunately, I've gotten much better at these discussions and I consider this kind of advising an important part of my job. Given declining student interest in both the history major and history courses generally—even at my small liberal arts college—being able to explain "why history" might just help me keep my job.

Three things have changed since the turn of the 21st century: deeper parental involvement in the lives of college students, new concerns about the "value" of degrees, and fewer opportunities for meaningful postgraduation employment. In the dim, dark past of the late 20th century parents sent their offspring to college with a little cash, lots of advice, and a vague sense that college was good for young people. Attending and graduating from college seemed to ensure that their children would have wealthier, healthier lives, and would mark them as members of the aspiring upper middle class. Students who majored in philosophy or classics or English or history always endured some familial teasing and questioning, but it was gentle. Which course of study they picked was personal. No more. Students and their families perceive the choice of a major as life-defining and as part of a tremendous family investment.

This sea change in attitude snuck up on me. As a professor at a traditional, residential liberal arts college, I met students' parents at family weekends and graduations. I rarely had contact with distant and confident parents around choices of major, course selection, or paper topics. But our students have changed, along with the economy and our cultural conversations about higher education. My classrooms now include the famously overnurtured generation of students accompanied by their helicopter parents, more first-generation college students than ever before, and students who have taken on massive amounts of debt to attend college. These students, and their families, won't simply trust us about the utility and value of a history degree.

This means that historians teaching and advising students need to be far more adept at conversations about what studying history offers. The AHA Tuning project—which is working to define what history students can do and developing language they can use effectively to describe their skills, knowledge, and habits of mind—gets at the heart of this challenge. We need to know what our students do with their degrees, how employers perceive history degrees, and the range of skills that a history major provides. Given that employers rate writing, research, and perspective-taking as the most central skills they hope to see in new hires, according to a recent American Association of Colleges and Universities employer survey, a history major should be ideal.1 We can make the case that history students excel in a range of satisfying jobs because of the skills and habits of mind we teach them. However, because so many people believe history is a set of dates and facts to be memorized, we need to be doing a better job of describing what it is we do and teach.

A more proactive approach helps. Waiting until a nervous student or parent comes into our offices or broaches the question online is really too late. Our department websites, the first places anxious students and parents now look, need to better balance the intellectual value of studying the past with stories about our alumni and the ways they have used their degrees. We should, in class and in advising sessions, lay out what students are learning and what this will enable them to do.

Tuning gives us a way to help students describe and demonstrate their knowledge and skills effectively. Completing a senior essay or a capstone project, for example, requires and demonstrates a huge range of useful skills, but students rarely know how to describe these or their topics in language that will appeal to employers. This takes practice, but it is worth it. Because I've practiced translating academic goals into words and analogies that make sense to a broad range of people, when I have to call Felicia's Grandma Jane next week, I'll have much more confidence in making the case that a history major is not a dangerous gamble.

Anne Hyde is the faculty director of the AHA's Tuning project, and professor of history at Colorado College.

Note

1. Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Raising the Bar: Employers Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn (Washington DC, 2010).