History and Leadership

Lewis Miller, Marketing Coordinator, HDO
June 1, 2016

Studying history – and the humanities in general – provides valuable skills and long-term earning potential. 

As a kid who thoroughly enjoyed history class, I was always annoyed when I heard my fellow students casually throw out the question “Why do we have to learn history? I mean, it’s all about stuff in the past!” No doubt, such comments were uttered more frequently prior to a big test or following a pop quiz.

If they were in earshot, teachers would quickly respond with some version of “those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past.” I’m pretty sure this would be followed by rolled eyes, the response having failed to change the minds of my complaining classmates.

Even as my interest in history was offended, I could easily brush off such questions, given that they were coming from my pre-teen classmates. As an adult, hearing very similar arguments being offered by serious people is much more worrisome.

“Employers interested in recruiting future managers should understand (and many do) that historical thinking prepares one for leadership because history is about change — envisioning it, planning for it, making it last.” – James Grossman, Executive Director, American Historical Association

Politicians, columnists, and even some higher education administrators routinely question the value of studying history (and the humanities in general). Their reasoning is usually based on a perceived lack of competitiveness relative to STEM fields (despite regular reminders that employers need the skills developed by studying the liberal arts).

Given all of the above, I was particularly excited to see James Grossman’s recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed. Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, highlights the flawed arguments put forward by humanities detractors:

A historian, however, would know that it is essential to look beyond such simplistic logic. Yes, in the first few years after graduation, STEM and business majors have more obvious job prospects – especially in engineering and computer science. And in our recession-scarred economic context, of course, students are concerned with landing that first job.

Over the long run, however, graduates in history and other humanities disciplines do well financially. [Marco] Rubio would be surprised to learn that after 15 years, those philosophy majors have more lucrative careers than college graduates with business degrees. History majors’ mid-career salaries are on par with those holding business bachelor’s degrees.

Grossman concludes with a strong endorsement of the enduring value of humanities education:

The utility of disciplines that prepare critical thinkers escapes personnel offices, pundits and politicians (some of whom perhaps would prefer that colleges graduate more followers and fewer leaders). But it shouldn’t. Labor markets in the United States and other countries are unstable and unpredictable. In this environment — especially given the expectation of career changes — the most useful degrees are those that can open multiple doors and those that prepare one to learn rather than do some specific thing.

All liberal arts degrees demand that kind of learning, as well as the oft-invoked virtues of critical thinking and clear communication skills. History students, in particular, sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it. In the process, they learn how to infer what drives and motivates human behavior from elections to social movements to boardrooms. 

Employers interested in recruiting future managers should understand (and many do) that historical thinking prepares one for leadership because history is about change — envisioning it, planning for it, making it last.

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