Why History isn’t just Bollocks

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I deal with this on a weekly basis. Why study history? Whats the point? This line of questioning goes so far as to suggest that for the community college level students shouldn’t delve into the social sciences or humanities, solely focusing on the trades instead.

I could not disagree more.

History is far from useless.  In essence, history as a craft, or discipline is the ability to argue. As it turns out, you are going to be arguing for the rest of your life. Arguing with/persuading your significant other, your employer, relatives, friends, and ass hats on the internet. The ability to argue may be one the most critical skills you need to develop in this world.

Can you point to an exact economic impact in raw numbers, like you can with say a welding certificate? No. This not equate with an exact dollar per hour quantification. But you can point to the dividends that this skill will reap over the long term. The traditional argument for the social sciences tend toward  creating “well informed citizenry” out of our students, giving them various lenses from which to engage the world around them. As students are bombarded with information from every corner of their life, it is essential that they develop new key literacies to sift and analyze this cascade of information. To nurture what Hemingway famously called “as shockproof a bullshit meter as possible”.

Take a look at the numbers below, they even include graphs!

History Is Not a Useless Major:

Fighting Myths with Data

Paul B. Sturtevant, April 2017

Over the past 20 years, warnings from a variety of sources—from career counselors to administrators to government officials—have convinced many prospective college students (and their parents) that the only safe path to a well-paying job is through a STEM major. Members of the academy—including STEM faculty themselves—have repeatedly challenged assertions that majoring in the humanities is useless. And employers of STEM graduates say that they value skills cultivated in a wide-ranging curriculum.

But the sense persists that the push toward STEM comes at the direct expense of humanities majors; history enrollments have declined sharply since at least 2011. As Julia Brookins reported in the March 2016 issue of Perspectives on History: “The number of history BAs and BSs completed in the United States fell for the third time in four years, this time by 9.1 percent from the previous year, from 34,360 to 31,233 [in 2014].” According to the most recent data, this steep decline has continued, with only 28,157 history majors graduating in 2015 (a decline of 9.8 percent from 2014).

In advising students, talking to parents, and listening to the priorities articulated by state legislatures, we continue to encounter widespread myths about the lives of people who graduate with history BAs. These myths are largely based on misinformation about the prospective lives of those who major in history. They paint life with a degree in history as a wasteland of unemployment and underemployment—that careful study of Asoka’s conquests or the Industrial Revolution leads to a life of “Would you like fries with that?”

A potent way to combat these myths is with concrete data. Thankfully, a massive repository of data, the American Community Survey (ACS), tells us much about the lives of history majors. Conducted by the US Census Bureau each year since 2000, the ACS is a statistical survey of 3.5 million American households. It includes questions on a wide range of topics, from demographic details like age and race/ethnicity to situational data like housing and employment status. Most usefully for us, it also records individuals’ undergraduate majors. These data are then compiled and aggregated into one-, three-, and five-year estimates.

From the ACS, we know that over the years 2010–14, some 29.7 percent of all American adults over 25 completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of those, 2.21 percent received a bachelor’s in history or US history. The ACS data offer us a snapshot of these history majors across the country and at different phases of life: from recent graduates to those in retirement.

Overall, the ACS data suggest that the picture for history majors is far brighter than critics of the humanities would have you believe, even those who think the sole purpose of a college degree is to achieve a well-paying job.

Myth 1: History Majors Are Underemployed

One fear is that history degrees do not offer a life of gainful employment or the job security that other careers might. The truth is very different. The ACS found that 4.6 percent of history majors between the ages of 25 and 64 were unemployed at the time they were surveyed. The national average, by comparison, was 7.7 percent. Against all holders of a college degree, however, there was a modest difference: degree-holders overall had 4.1 percent unemployment, half a percentage point lower. While history majors do have a slightly higher unemployment rate, the data show that someone interested in the field should not be deterred; the difference is very slight.

Myth 2: A History Major Does Not Prepare You for Gainful Employment

Fig. 1. Data source: ACS 2010–14 5-year Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS). Includes individuals who stated they were in full-time employment, between the ages of 25 and 64, had achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher, and had either history or US history as the field of study for their bachelor’s degree.

Fig. 1. Data source: ACS 2010–14 5-year Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS). Includes individuals who stated they were in full-time employment, between the ages of 25 and 64, had achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher, and had either history or US history as the field of study for their bachelor’s degree.

Most myths begin with a kernel of truth that is then warped beyond recognition. The idea that a history degree doesn’t lead directly into a profession is true only for students who expect to become professional historians or to work in a closely related occupation. The vast majority of history majors, of course, do not become professional historians; according to the ACS, only 4.5 percent of history majors become educators at a postsecondary level (that is, mostly college professors). The proportion who become museum professionals—0.5 percent of the total—is a very small slice of the overall pie as well.

But the ACS data imply that many history majors do not expect to become historians and that they find meaningful careers in a wide range of fields. A history degree provides a broad skillset that has ensured that history majors are employed in almost every walk of life, with some notable trends (see fig. 1).

Fig. 2. Data source: ACS 2010–14 5-year Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS). Includes individuals who stated they were in full-time employment, between the ages of 25 and 64, had achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher, and had either history or US history as the field of study for their bachelor’s degree.

History majors seem particularly well-­prepared for, and attracted to, certain careers. Nearly one in five goes into education—just over half as primary-, middle-, and high-school teachers. Another 15 percent enter management positions in business, and 11 percent go into the legal professions (most becoming lawyers). The “fries” myth is definitely not backed up by the data; only 1.7 percent of history majors work in food preparation, compared to 5 percent of the overall population.

It’s important to note that nearly half of the history majors identified by the ACS went on to graduate school (see fig. 2)—a much higher percentage than the national average (37 percent) and higher than majors in English (45 percent) and the liberal arts (26 percent). This might be because law, management, and education require advanced study. It could also mean that students interested in careers that require graduate training see a history major as a springboard. Likely it is a combination of the two. But knowing this, history departments must understand that it is imperative that they prepare majors for graduate school and offer guidance in educational and career choices.

Myth 3: History Majors Are Underpaid

Fig. 3. Data source: American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators, table III-4a. Available at http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=287.

Again, we start with a kernel of truth. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators project released an analysis of ACS data showing that those with degrees in the humanities earn less (in terms of median income) than those with degrees in engineering, health care, business, and the sciences (see fig. 3).

Fig. 4. Data source: American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators, table III-4a. Available at http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=287. Methodological note: The ACS survey records undergraduate major by a free-response text block, with no apparent guidance on how to represent a person’s degree. As a result, the number who reported their major as “history” may also include some who studied US history. The overall number of US history majors reported in the ACS is very low, to such a degree that they may make statistical analyses problematic. It is for these reasons that I combine the US history and history majors in my analysis, though the American Academy of Arts and Sciences does not.

Part of this is based more on field than on level of achievement; the work of engineers and computer programmers is better remunerated than that of, for example, elementary school teachers—even though our society demands good teachers. But history fares well in terms of compensation when compared to other humanities majors. The differences in median income among the humanities disciplines are not significant; the disparity between highest- and lowest-­paid humanities majors in the workforce is only a few thousand dollars (see fig. 4).

Data suggest prospects for potential history majors are good, but history departments must offer guidance in career and graduate school choices.

Because of the diversity of careers that humanities majors—particularly history majors—go into, there is a wider-than-­average distribution of incomes based upon field of work (see fig. 5). As in the general workforce, it is the occupation of college graduates in the humanities, rather than their undergraduate major, that accounts for differences in income. For history majors between the ages of 25 and 64 who are neither unemployed nor out of the workforce, the median income is currently $60,000 per year. But for those in managerial positions, the median is $80,000. For those in the legal occupations, the median is $100,000. But for those in education, it is $47,000, and for those who go into community and social services, the median is $45,000.

Fig. 5. Data source: ACS 2010–14 5-year Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS). Includes individuals who stated they were in full-time employment, between the ages of 25 and 64, had achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher, and had either history or US history as the field of study for their bachelor’s degree.

In short, it is not that history majors are underpaid. It is that the diverse range of occupations that a history degree prepares them for includes several important, but vastly undervalued, public service careers. If the only consideration when choosing a major is whether you will be earning six figures by the age of 30, then history may not be the best field. But for students who are inspired by work in which the greatest rewards may not necessarily be financial, a history major remains an excellent option.

The ACS data shed fascinating light on some of the myths about life with a history degree. Majoring in history does not doom a graduate to a life of unemployment or under­employment. In fact, history majors go on to become much better educated than the average person, filling roles in a wider range of careers than holders of many other degrees. The worst that can be said of this situation is that many of those careers are socially undervalued. But that does not mean that a degree in history is any less valuable.

Methodological note: All ACS data cited in this article include only those individuals between the ages of 25 and 64 who were in full-time employment, who achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher, and who stated that their field of study for their bachelor’s degree was either history or US history. All data were taken from the ACS’s 2010–14 5-year Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS). Data on the number of history bachelors’ degrees awarded in 2015 were gleaned from the annual National Center for Education Statistics via the NSF’s WebCASPAR system at https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/webcaspar.

Paul B. Sturtevant is a medievalist, social scientist, and public historian. He received a PhD in medieval studies from the University of Leeds and is a social science analyst at the Smithsonian Institution, as well as editor in chief of The Public Medievalisthttp://www.publicmedievalist.com/.

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Monday Mornin’

Monday Morning comes at you hard some weeks. I’ve noticed that for some of us, immersed in the digital age, the lines between the work week and the weekend have a tendency to blur quite a bit. I wanted to share a slice of motivation, in the form a brief TED talk. Kick Monday motivation square in the pants.

For those who are constantly online and working even on the weekends, stress is an all too common a feeling. But to feel so at the start of a fresh week is not likely to do much for your productivity. However, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, in this talk, shares her findings on how we can (and need to) re-calibrate our minds to view stress contrarily, different than our current notion/belief of it is as a life-threatening disease of sorts. Kelly talks about perspective changes, how one can try to see stress as a sign of action-readiness. About how we can view our stress responses as helpful and not harmful. Her suggestions on how we can befriend-stress are simple and worth giving a try.

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What do you think? Any methods you might recommend? Leave some love.

Writing tips from Nomadic Matt

If  you ever venture through the world of travel writing, you will run across Nomadic Matt.  I dig his stuff.  I wanted to share a recent post on writing tips that I found super  helpful Find the site here

His site is a kind of institution, and deservedly so. He’s been in the game for quite a while, and is typically ranked as one of the busiest travel blogs on the web. I found this guide a great primer, and wanted to share with the community here.

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This post is a little inside baseball about travel writing. It’s a follow-up to my semi-ongoing series on travel blogging that started with this post, continued with this one, and will now (probably) end with this post here. To me, the crux of all online endeavors is good writing. With so many blogs out there, if you can’t write engaging stories, you’ll never get anywhere! So today, I want to introduce one of my favorite travel writers, David Farley, who is going to share 11 writing tips for fellow bloggers and writers out there! Here’s David:

I always thought that once I started writing for glossy travel magazines, I could relax a bit because I’d “made it.” Nope! Then I thought that once I began penning pieces for the New York Times, I could say I was successful. Not. At. All. OK, maybe when I had a book out, published by a major publishing house, things would get a bit easier for me. I wish!

Writers, in some way, are a sorry lot. Rarely do they ever look at something and say “perfect!” Maybe for a moment — but give a writer a day and he or she will come back to that same article and find dozens of mistakes. Writing is a craft you never perfect.

We’re always striving to be better. Creatives tend to be perfectionists. Writing requires you to keep learning and improving.

But that’s good, because that drive makes writers improve their work. And only through practice and effort do we end up with the Hemingways, Brysons, Gilberts, and Kings of the world. (Matt says: I once heard that until the day he died, Frost never loved “The Road Not Taken.” He was constantly reworking it!)

If you’re a travel blogger, you probably started off not as a writer with a journalism background but as a traveler looking to share your experience. You probably didn’t have any formal training or someone to peer over your shoulder and give you advice.

So today I wanted to share 11 tips that will help you improve your travel writing or blogging. Because the world always needs good writers — and good writing helps get your story heard more! These tips, if followed, will better your writing and make a huge difference in the reach of your writing!

11 Ways to Improve Your Travel Writing/Blogging

an ope notebook on a desk, photo by @waferboard (flickr)
1. Read. This is number one. because whenever a budding writer asks me how they can improve, it’s my first piece of advice. Read good writing. Absorb it. Let it sink into your soul. Don’t think it’s possible? When I was first starting out, I was sick one weekend, so I spent three days lying in bed reading every page of that year’s Best American Travel Writing anthology. After I finished, I opened up my laptop and started writing for the first time in days. What came out surprised me: it was the highest-quality writing I’d done to date. And it was all because I was absorbed in good writing and it filtered through me back onto the page in my own writing.

(Matt says: Here’s a list of my favorite travel books.)

2. Do it for love. Maya Angelou wrote, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.” Don’t get into travel writing for the money — after all, that would be totally unrealistic. And please don’t gravitate to the genre because you want free trips and hotel rooms. “Instead,” Ms. Angelou added, “do [it] so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” Or, in other words, strive to become such a good writer that the editors of all the publications you have been dreaming to write for can’t ignore you anymore.

3. Don’t be attached to linear writing. You need not compose a piece from beginning to middle to end. Sometimes that’s not the ideal structure of the story. Sure, maybe you’ve already figured that out. But if not, it’s OK to just get a few scenes and paragraphs of exposition down “on paper.” Then you can step back and take a look at the bigger picture and rearrange what you have, figuring out the best way to tell the story.

4. Tap into your own sense of motivation and drive. The students of mine at New York University who have been most successful were not always the most talented in the class. But they were the most driven. They’d read enough quality writing and thought about it — understanding what made it so wonderful — that there was just something about writing that they got. They weren’t born with that understanding, but ambition drove them to seek out better writing and then to think about it, to analyze what made it good (or not so good). Drive also inspires future successful writers to go out on a limb, to render themselves vulnerable, by reaching out to more accomplished writers to ask for advice, or by introducing themselves to editors at events or conferences. Don’t be shy! Standing in the corner quietly won’t get you as far as putting your hand out to introduce yourself will.

5. Try to figure out what gets your mind and writing flowing. Let me explain: I can sit down at my laptop and stare at a blank Word document for hours, not sure how to start a story or what to write about. Then I’ll respond to an email from a friend who wants to know about the trip I’m trying to write about. I’ll write a long email with cool and interesting anecdotes about my experience and include some analysis about the place and culture. And then I’ll realize: I can just cut and paste this right into the empty Word doc I’ve been staring at for the last three hours! Several of my published articles have blocks of texts that were originally written as parts of emails to friends. The “email trick” might not work for everyone, but there is inevitably some trick for the rest of you — be it talking to a friend or free-associating in your journal.

6. Understand all aspects of storytelling. There are two types of travel writing: commercial and personal essay (or memoir). In commercial travel writing, you should make the various parts of the story an intrinsic aspect of your knowledge: from ways to write a lede to the nut graph, scenes, exposition, and conclusions. For memoir and personal essays, know what narrative arc means like the back of your typing hands. It helps to get an intuitive understanding of these things by paying attention to writing — to reading like a writer — as you read nonfiction (and travel) articles.

7. Don’t stress if your first draft is shit. Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” And he wasn’t kidding. I find this true when I’m writing a personal essay or travel memoir. I write and I write and I write, and I’m not exactly sure what I’m putting down on paper. What’s the point of this? I ask myself. Why am I even doing this? But here is where patience comes in: eventually, the clouds part, the proverbial sunbeam from the heavens shines down on our computer monitors, and we see the point of it all: we finally figure out what it is we’re writing and how to best tell that story. It just happens like magic sometimes. And not all at once: sometimes it’s bit by bit, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But as I mentioned, patience is key, because we never know when that divine magic is going to be activated. But sit around long enough and it will happen, I promise you. (Just be cautious when taking Hemingway’s other writing advice: “Write drunk, edit sober.”)

8. Write what you know. “Start telling the stories that only you can tell,” said writer Neil Gaiman, “because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.”

9. When you’re finished with a draft, read it out loud. Preferably, print it out and read it out loud. This will allow you to better hear how the piece sounds, and unacceptable segues and clunky sentences or turns of phrases will jump out at you in a more obvious way.

10. Always get another set of eyes on your writing. While all writers make mistakes, it’s harder to spot them without an editor. Editors are very important, but they don’t necessarily have to be someone with formal training. While hiring a copyeditor is always great, if you can just get a friend to read your blog or story, that might be good enough.

It’s even better if you have someone who doesn’t know about travel. I have a friend who doesn’t travel much; she reads all my blog posts because she helps me make sure I include the important details I might have skipped. See, when you’re an expert on something, you often fill in the blanks in your mind. You go from A to C automatically; step B becomes subconscious. And when you write, you skip step B because it seems so obvious. Getting someone who doesn’t know the steps will help ensure you include explain everything in your post and don’t leave your readers going, “Huh?”

11. Finally, learn to self-edit. This is where many people go wrong. They write, they read it over, they post. And then feel embarrassed as they say, “Oh, man, I can’t believe I missed that typo.” You don’t need to be master editor, but if you follow a few principles, it will go a long way: First, write something and let it sit for a few days before editing. After your first round of edits, repeat the process. Get another set of eyes on it. Print out a checklist of grammar rules to go through as you edit. (Note: Matt created one here for you.) As you review your work, say to yourself, “Did I do this? Did I do that?” If you follow the cheat sheet, you’ll catch most of your mistakes and end up with a much better final product!

Writing is an art form. It takes a lot of practice. When you’re a blogger out on your own, it can be harder to improve your work, because you don’t have an experienced voice giving you tips and advice and pushing you to be better. If you don’t take it upon yourself to be better, you never will be. However, even if you aren’t blessed to work under an editor, these 11 tips can help you improve your writing today and become a much better blogger, writing stories people want to read!

David Farley has been writing about travel, food, and culture for over twenty years. His work has appeared in AFAR magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, and World Hum, among other publications. In 2006 and 2013, he won the Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for magazine articles he wrote. He has lived in Prague, Paris, and Rome and now New York City. He is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity and was a host for National Geographic. He teaches writing at Columbia University and New York University.