Letters to the Editor

On "History is Not a Useless Major"

Robert E. Wright | Sep 1, 2017

To the editor:

Paul B. Sturtevant correctly argues that history isn’t a useless major (“History Is Not a Useless Major,” Perspectives, April 2017), but in the process of burning down straw men he overestimates the value of a history degree. The difference between a 4.1 percent unemployment rate for all degree holders and a 4.6 percent unemployment rate for history majors is not “very slight,” it is about 11 percent. Another test would be to compare the employment rates of history majors and other degree holders when unemployment rates are rising/falling to see if history majors are the last hired or first fired. A comparison of labor force participation rates might also be instructive.

Figure 4 shows that the median income of history majors is not distinguishable from those of philosophy or literature majors, which suggests that a history degree, while of some value, confers no advantage over its peers. Figure 5 shows that history majors are not barred from obtaining higher paid employment if, and only if, they obtain additional education, like a law or business degree. To judge history’s merits more carefully, however, we need to know how the incomes of history majors compare to those of non-history majors who obtain the same professional degrees.

Robert E. Wright
Augustana University

Paul B. Sturtevant responds:

The question of the relationship between undergraduate major and employment cannot be fully explored in one article. There are several factors to consider when examining the difference between all degree holders and history majors. Using a relative difference (e.g., the 11.1 percent difference between 4.1 percent and 4.6 percent) inflates the small absolute difference between the two (0.5 percent) inappropriately without further evidence. Seeing whether the 11 percent difference or the 0.5 percent difference holds when at higher or lower unemployment could be a valuable follow-up—though there are surely many confounding factors that could influence those results, such as the last-hired/first-fired question. As it stands, such a small absolute difference cannot definitively be attributed to the major itself, considering the number of confounding factors potentially at play (including what schools offer the degree, how many students take double majors, and student aptitude).

And it must be remembered that the differences in unemployment among majors is far smaller (by an order of magnitude) than between those with a bachelor’s and those without. That said, further study around the question of unemployment could be useful.

Comparison of labor force participation is part of a much larger topic latent in the data—that of gender and the history major—which warrants further inquiry.

It is hoped that this work will contribute to the body of knowledge and that future investigations will continue to add further data and nuance to this conversation.

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