Letters to the Editor: On Advising Mom and Dad

John E. Wills Jr., December 2013

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Dear Colleagues,

The excellent discussion in the April 2013 issue of Perspectives, especially Anne Hyde’s “Advising Mom and Dad," left me admiring all the good thinking and hard work that goes into our dealing with students and parents worrying about how a history major will lead to a useful and employable life after graduation. Hyde writes of having had “scores of these family conversations.” She and other colleagues must have had many scores of conversations with students at various points in trying to figure out next steps toward a fulfilling adult life. Choice of a career and preparation for it are vital, to be sure, but more "c's" and one "f" can be equally vital—citizenship, community, conviction, family. Similarly, choosing a major is just part of the fraught process of making the most of the college years, or even of the course work part of them. We know, and should remind anxious parents, that requirements for a major take up only one-fourth to one-third of a student’s undergraduate course work. Other commitments of time and effort during those years may include internships, extracurricular activities, and long-term and short-term study abroad, any of which may open up a big piece of a fulfilling adult life.

Starting early and planning carefully, it's possible to complete two majors. The University of Southern California, where I taught for many years, has worked very hard to make it possible to combine any two majors, and many students have found this option very attractive. Sometimes the two majors are very different; I remember a student in my survey of Chinese history who was double-­majoring in cinema production and classics. Often the student sees one major as the one that he or she simply finds fascinating and central to an understanding of what it is to be human, and the other as the one that keeps a way open toward useful involvement in the world and, yes, employment. A well-worked-out major and minor, or even informal learning about a second field, can go a long way. I notice in a recent newsletter from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I got my BA, a story about Christina Brodbeck, who got a BA in history in 2001, was a member of the YouTube founding team, and has been recognized as a major player in Silicon Valley. It seems that she did this without even a minor in computer science; a lot of people get into IT in informal ways. She still loves history and “credits her college education with a concise and clear writing style that has helped sell many ideas.

I especially would want to remind concerned parents that education, especially public education, always has been conceived as giving young people more than job skills, as well as also helping them to become citizens. In all my “c’s”, citizenship, community, conviction, we’re engaged in shaping a future and arguing with others about it. Communities that matter to us range from family to town to global. I am ready to argue that the study of history is the best starting point for the nurturing of citizens/members/participants. Stories, very much including those in which actions have unexpected consequences, are among the strongest nutrients of the moral imagination. Alert reading of texts helps us learn to pay attention to traces of different experiences, different constructions of reality. In history classes we look at one kind of important change or another, and trace the multiple and contingent changes that led to it. Most good policy and moral argument includes some “background.” Theories help, but we don’t usually start from them or get stuck on one set of them. These skills help us look at where we are now, get some idea about how we got here, and how for better or for worse we can go on from here.

We also might tell worried parents that business leaders often say they want to hire people who can read, write, and think, and we think that a history major is one of the best for that. We may want to suggest that a strong knowledge of some other part of the world (history courses, language, study abroad) and a business minor is a pretty good start for our globalized business world.

Above all, we historians ought to keep reminding ourselves, our colleagues in other disciplines, our students, and their parents that the study of history is one of the widest, most flexible, and most powerful forms of continued growth as a human being in time and in interconnection.

John E. Wills, Jr.
Professor of history, emeritus
University of Southern California