Career Paths

History as Preparation for a Career in Business

Jack Cumming, November 2014

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My career illustrates an opportunity that historians and humanists often overlook by leaving the preparation of business leaders principally to business and engineering schools. Skills familiar to historians—analysis, writing, integrity—are what distinguish great business leaders. While case studies can bring a semblance of historical dynamism to business education, there is nothing like a historical perspective as preparation for business in a time of rapid change.

A transition in my preparation for a business career followed from a moment of insight on a warm early spring afternoon in 1956. My first two years of college were in engineering. I’d spent that afternoon in a laboratory measuring the strength of concrete blocks. Now that’s very important for engineers to know. No one wants a building to collapse under its own weight. But at 4:30 p.m., after three hours with those concrete blocks, I returned to my room to find my roommates still in heated discussion over a morning lecture on the Renaissance and Reformation. The lecture was given by “Jinx” Harbison, a consummate scholar and teacher. “My goodness,” I thought, “these guys are getting an education, and I’m crushing concrete blocks.”

The next day I initiated a shift in major from engineering to the humanities, specifically European area studies. I was afraid to jump right into a history major. History was considered formidable, and I lacked the prerequisite survey courses. Area studies allowed a historical focus with diversification into other humanities. I was fortunate to be allowed to start with junior-level history courses after R. R. Palmer, the head of the history department, decided I could handle it. He had given me a stack of books, including his own, to read over the summer, followed by an informal oral exam in the fall.

Despite my shift to the humanities, my passion for a business career remained. Business serves to improve the human condition, to create employment, and to raise the overall standard of living. I wanted to be part of that practical world.

Until that moment in 1956 I had thought that an attraction to business and an interest in history were two dissimilar interests. As it turned out, that is not the case. It’s true that business is practical and history can be academic, but the academic can illumine the practical.

Like my passion for business, my interest in history began early. When I was nine years old, a captivating picture appeared on the front page of our local newspaper. Buchenwald had just been liberated, and we awoke one day to a photograph of a starving, under-clothed man standing by a bunk bed. You’ve likely seen that picture. The full horror of what our nation had been fighting suddenly was manifest before our eyes. How, I wondered, could such an atrocity have come to pass? Might it conceivably ever happen here, in the United States? Questions like these, I came to know, are the stuff of history.

My career has been as an actuary. Unlike many other business professions, including law or accounting, actuarial qualification does not require a specific academic preparation. Fellows of the Society of Actuaries qualify by passing a lengthy series of examinations administered at worldwide centers. The opportunity to simply read a book and master the contents can spare the aspirant the tedium of vocational classes. The sole requisites are demonstrated mastery and good character. This can help a humanities graduate to establish the practical credentials that businesses expect.

After college I went to work in insurance, but my interest in history persisted. In that era, New York University allowed people to work toward a PhD through evening courses. I was hungry to study history. The year was 1962, six years after my change of major, and four years after I’d earned my bachelor’s degree. I had become a junior officer at a major New York insurance company and was sitting for the actuarial examinations.

The self-study format of the actuarial program left me free to enroll at NYU. With the evening option, I was able to support my young family, to prepare for actuarial exams, and to pursue professional-level studies in history, all at the same time. The combination was perfect for me.

Working full-time at a demanding business position, while pursuing graduate studies at night, takes a toll. I reduced my sleep over a period of years to just three to four hours a night, though I made up for it on Sunday. To stay in shape I would run the distance from my office at 51st Street in New York City to the university building at 8th Street (roughly two and a half miles). Even though the combination of work and graduate school was stressful, I felt fortunate to have access to a first-rate university that offered evening classes.

I never revealed to my work associates that I was studying graduate-level history. They might have thought that I wasn’t serious in business, so I didn’t take that chance. I was ambitious for career advancement. I expected pushback from the business community and avoided it by studying covertly, but I was surprised to find that my dissertation adviser thought that, if I continued in business, I couldn’t be a serious history student. He wanted me to teach, but that had never been my intention. Finally, he told me he would never approve my dissertation since he couldn’t “certify” me as a historian if I remained in business. By that time, I had rewritten the first chapters of my dissertation three times. With his words I knew I would not progress. I dropped the pursuit of a PhD. Although I don’t have a degree to show for those years of effort, I gained the benefit of the education.

My business career blossomed, and I was given positions of increasingly higher responsibility. Those years of concentrated historical studies propelled my success. Historians are uniquely qualified to foresee change, to set change into context, to recognize practical innovation, and to manage the transitions from one era to the next. The sense of opportunity in a changing world distinguishes the historically trained businessperson from the graduate of a business program. It allows the historian in business to capitalize on change while others may only see change as an unpleasant challenge.

Beyond the historian’s grasp of change, practical skills from the humanities are critical to corporate leadership. Understanding of human nature tops the list. Other skills are nearly as important; not least among them is the craft of writing clearly, succinctly, and effectively. Good writing is followed closely by the ability to articulate a vision and to enlist others in the corporate cause. History provides a visionary perspective. Historians are trained to read rapidly and with comprehension; corporate leaders must absorb information quickly and cogently. Without these skills no business leader can be fully successful.

Of course, the pragmatics of business also matter. Businesspeople must know finance, accounting, marketing, organizational management, legal requirements, and the like. Historical preparation can facilitate even the mastery of these specifics. The rapid absorption of complex and varied information provides an advantage. Marketing requires deep understanding of people and what motivates them. Organizational management is not that different from the varieties of societal organization, which historians understand well. In short, a businessperson who has a strong grounding in the humanities and is rooted in history is well positioned to absorb the pragmatic vocational skills needed.

Graduate history programs can thrive if they avoid the narrow premise that graduate education is job training for teaching. Expanding the vision can bring wider awareness of the value of graduate-level historical training for business and other careers. Recognizing these broader career possibilities can create new opportunities for those with advanced history degrees.

Jack Cumming is a consulting actuary and research director for the National Continuing Care Residents Association. His aborted dissertation was on Walther Rathenau as a thinker, writer, business executive, and government official.

Photo of Jack Cumming by Stephanie Sundell, Creative Photography


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