23 of the Best Jobs for History Majors

Our friend John Fea recently shared a link to a post entitled “23 of the Best Jobs for History Majors.” Compiled by James Mulvey, an English major-turned-software marketer, it lists “careers that pay well, complement the skills taught in History departments and have long-term growth.” While some would probably come to mind quickly — journalist, museum exhibit designer, perhaps political campaign manager, several prizing research skills — others are much more surprising.

In particular, let me point out that several of the 23 are cutting-edge jobs that lie at the intersection of history, coding, and design: e.g., web developer, CMS editor, content editor and content strategist, UX designer, social media manager. So if any of those career paths intrigue you, then you definitely should be taking DIG200 Intro to Digital Humanities this fall with Prof. Goldberg!

A Council of Historical Advisers?

After World War II, a Council of Economic Advisers was established to provide American presidents with expert economic analysis. It now numbers some twenty government and academic economists.

Last fall two Harvard historians, Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison, recommended the creation of a historical equivalent:

Were a Council of Historical Advisers in place today, it could consider precedents for numerous strategic problems. For example: As tensions increase between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, are U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and other countries as dangerous to peace as the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality, which became the casus belli between Britain and Germany in 1914?

The council might study whether a former president’s handling of another crisis could be applied to a current challenge (what would X have done?). Consider Obama’s decision to strike an imperfect deal to halt or at least delay Iran’s nuclear program, rather than bombing its uranium-enrichment plants, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped he might. Obama’s deliberations have significant parallels with Kennedy’s decision during the Cuban missile crisis to strike a deal with Nikita Khrushchev, rather than invading Cuba or learning to live with Soviet missiles off Florida’s coast.

Indeed, Allison and Ferguson don’t want to stop there. They see this council as helping birth a whole new branch of the discipline of history:

We not only want to see applied history incorporated into the Executive Office of the President, alongside economic expertise; we also want to see it developed as a discipline in its own right at American universities, beginning at our own. When people refer to “applied history” today, they are typically referring to training for archivists, museum curators, and the like. We have in mind a different sort of applied history…

Mainstream historians take an event, phenomenon, or era and attempt to explain what happened. They sometimes say that they study the past “for its own sake.” Applied historians would take a current predicament and try to identify analogues in the past. Their ultimate goal would be to find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences. You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics. But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians. Applied history can try to remedy that.

In fact, Harvard’s famous Kennedy School hosts an Applied History Project:

In the earliest days of historical writing in Ancient Greece and Rome, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and others viewed history as a vital teacher for statesmen. Into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, historical knowledge maintained a central place in strategy and statesmanship, inspiring such leaders as Bismarck and Churchill. In more recent times, however, the history-policy relationship has atrophied. Today, policymakers too often retreat to facile historical analogies, while historians become more and more distrustful of policymakers’ misuse of their craft.

But Princeton professors Jeremy Adelman was among the many historians who wasn’t entirely sure that Allison and Ferguson’s idea was a good one:

Saving history and America at the same time means taking current problems, finding historic precedents from which we can learn, and bridging the gap between ailing mainstream historians and practitioners who need more informed coordinates about what’s going on in the world. That’s fine — good, actually.

But: It represents only one slice of what historians have to offer. What happens to pasts that are not so readily repurposed for the future as decided by today? Whose past gets summoned? And who is the past to serve if relevance drives the agenda, shakes up status differences, and allocates resources?

…Ironically, the historical ignorance that Allison and Ferguson rightly decry as saturating the Bush White House reflected prior campaigns to make history more current. After the Cold War, when big funders and universities bailed on training in foreign languages and learning about exotic parts (bundled in stigmatized and downsized “area studies”), they laid low our capacity to understand Others — precisely when that skill was about to acquire a whole new valence with the rise of China, the flow of Latin American migrants, and the transformation of the Middle East. Universities are still recovering from the narrowed vision of what they thought was happening to the world in 1989.

What do you think of the notion of “applied history”? Should the president appoint a Council of Historical Advisers?

A Sample Timeline… and a Bit of Coding

As an example of how you can use Timeline JS to tell a digital story using narration and primary sources… Click here to see a timeline I produced last February, after the sudden death of long-serving Bethel history and political science professor G.W. Carlson.

One trick I used in that timeline that we didn’t get to yesterday… You can use some simple HTML code to include links in the narrative text and captions. For example, if you wanted to build a link to the Library of Congress into your timeline, you would enter the following text in your spreadsheet:

<a href="http://loc.gov">The Library of Congress</a>

Ranking Presidents: The Problem of Evaluative Questions

When we talked on Friday afternoon about the kinds of questions that historians ask, the trickiest category seemed to be what Philip Gleason called “evaluative question”: What does this mean? Was it good, right, just, etc.?

As an example: check out the newest edition of C-SPAN’s ranking of American presidents. First attempted at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, then reprised after George W. Bush, this newest version coincides with the end of the Obama administration. You can read the full methodology here, but in brief: C-SPAN asked over ninety distinguished historians, political scientists, journalists, and other presidential observers to rank all forty-four presidents (not the current one) 1-10 on ten different categories of presidential performance, from Public Persuasion to Crisis Leadership to Relations with Congress.

Mount Rushmore

From left to right, the 2nd, 7th, 4th, and 1st rated presidents according to the new C-SPAN survey – Creative Commons (Dean Franklin)

In other words, the participants were asked evaluative questions about a certain segment of the American past. Their collective answer is fun to read through, and good at sparking heated conversations. (“Is JFK really the 8th greatest president?”) And some of the changes since 2000 and 2009 reflect shifts in presidential historiography: e.g., U.S. Grant started way down at #33 when the survey was first conducted, but he’s now up to #22, the top half of the table — no doubt because historians now tend to view his staunch support of Reconstruction much more positively (a shift I touched on Friday).

But this exercise also reveals two of the problems with evaluative questions that came up in our discussion:

1. As Aidan suggested, it’s hard to answer such questions about the very recent past. For example, do we really have enough distance from the presidency of Barack Obama (#12) in order to assess his performance? It’s notable that in 2009 George W. Bush started off in the bottom ten (#36), but he’s already jumped three spots — and made especially significant upward moves in the categories of Public Persuasion (+11), Relations with Congress (+9), and Pursuing Equal Justice for All (+5). That suggests that historians are already reassessing his time in office, just eight years later.

(Perhaps because they’re responding to the current political context, in which the current Republican president sounds and acts quite differently from Bush 43 and Bush 41.)

2. Like all history, this exercise is inherently subjective — and so prone to criticism that it reflects partisan politics more than thoughtful scholarship. Not only do different historians rate the same president differently, despite having the same evidence, but I’m not sure that they rate each of these categories equally — or even agree that they’re all significant categories.

And each historian brings her own presuppositions to the exercise. For example, if you’re a conservative who is suspicious about the expansion of executive power or government regulation, you’re probably going to disagree strongly with the high rankings of progressive Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt (#3) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (now at #10). By the same token, progressives might admire Woodrow Wilson for helping usher in reforms that paved the way for FDR’s New Deal, but his record on civil rights, women’s rights, and civil liberties probably led them to rate him lower. (He has dropped two spots since 2009, and five since 2000. We’ll return to the case of Wilson in late March or early April.)

What strikes you most about the rankings? How valuable is this kind of exercise?