The Profession

The Time for Dialogue Is Over

James W. Cortada | May 1, 2002

I am an executive at IBM, where I have been working for nearly 28 years. I have a PhD in history, and have been a member of the AHA for 32 years. I found your essay right on target. Since the late 1970s—working a couple of times with the AHA, and having published in Perspectives—I have advocated that historians consider alternative ways to think about their careers, training, and use of history. All to no avail. Ernest May (then chair of the history department at Harvard) and I, along with some others, tried in the late 1970s to get students to think about jobs in business, with little success. I participated in a breakout session at the AHA annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in January 1999, and we had a packed house—ironically with many assistant and associate professors also in attendance, who thought they would not get tenure or were just frustrated with their careers.

Our Association, and the history profession, just does not seem to want to change. Here's the situation today. Since 1960, when 80 percent of all student-days in the United States for students over the age of 21 were provided by colleges and universities, the market share for history has shrunk to just under 50 percent and my own company's forecasts suggest this trend will continue at the rate of 1 to 3 percentage points a year over the next five years; this is a huge transformation.

That is a fancy way of saying that more students are getting their education outside of the academy. Add in all the good data Robert Townsend has been putting in front of us about the horrible, chronically dismal job situation for wannabe historians and even a dull-witted person can get the message. I continue to believe there is a place for historical perspective in corporate America, and I don't mean just as a business historian, but for folks who, like me, built a career in business at the center of what companies do, in my case, sales. Like you, I too remember special lecturers. In my case it was Don Horward at Florida State University lecturing also on the French Revolution, and most dramatically, on the French queen's attempt to escape from France only to be brought back for trial and execution. He gave that lecture in October 1969, but even after all the intervening years, I can almost recite the complete lecture.

I am not optimistic that the AHA can do much. Part of the problem is focus. For instance, you get to guide the Association for only one year, hardly enough time for anybody to manage a significant transition. The historical profession for another has not yet felt the pain experienced in other industries that have caused great change, but from my perch at IBM I can assure you without any hesitation that the academic profession is on the verge of the kinds of fundamental change as has swept across many other industries. You will not recognize this profession 15 to 20 years from now in the United States. Yet after all is said, the relevance of history remains. The only people who seem not "to get it" are the historians. What we are learning in business is that history is too important to leave to the historians.

I no longer argue the case for graduate students to move into business. The reasons for my failure to influence any are well laid out in your article. However, I believe the institutions are the leverage points for change, such as the AHA. So my suggestion is that you begin to work with a few universities, and other organizations, to build a limited number of infrastructures for facilitating change, even—if necessary—getting funding from the National Science Foundation and other organizations to, in effect, "bribe" history departments to tell students about alternative careers, to encourage them to move into those careers, and to work with business schools to create joint programs by "funding" experimental programs. Do that right and you can graduate twice as many PhDs as you do today. You can place them in mainstream careers that are fun, financially very rewarding, and that allow them to enjoy, apply, and appreciate the historical perspective gained in graduate school and nurtured over the course of a career in both the public and private sector.

To do otherwise is to continue the deplorable conditions you have pointed out, until the academy is profoundly changed by technology, law, and market realities over the next 15 to 20 years.

I found your piece refreshing. More important, you had the courage to publish it! The question now is, can you and your colleagues implement real change? As your article implies, the time for dialogue is really over.

James W. Cortada
IBM Corporation
Madison, Wisc.

Tags: Career Diversity for Historians


Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.