Letter to a Graduating Student
The following is my reply to a young man soon to graduate from my Alma mater (Brooklyn College, City University of New York). I have worked with students from the Education and Career programs at the college for more than a decade. Usually, my collaboration involves hosting a student at my job (I teach high school History in the public school system of the City of New York) and having in-depth discussions about career choices. In this instance, I was asked to field questions from a student in the program via email. The student was not sure that his degree in History was going to prove of any value to him. He referred to it as a ‘dead end’. That view, and concerns for his future fiscal success, convinced me to reply in this fashion. I offer that response as an expression of my view regarding careers in general and the need to realign our plans for what is ‘good’ for ourselves and the nation we live in.
A pseudonym replaces the student’s true name.
I apologize that this reply is tardy. Please forgive me.
Your message gave me a feeling that your view of History (the study and teaching of it) might be a ‘dead end’. I must disagree on several counts. Allow me to tackle several matters you raise with the experience of my life- which is quite similar to yours.
I was a History and Science nerd in high school. I followed a Pre-Med track in college with a minor in History but became dismayed with my medical studies (a combination of growing disinterest in the subject and lack of enthusiasm). On the other hand, my interest and enthusiasm continued to burn brightly for History. I switched my major to History and converted my medical studies to a minor in Biology.
I joined the military after college for reasons not unlike your ambivalence about the ‘worth’ of a Humanities degree. Of course, I had the added responsibility, as a citizen, to give my time to the nation’s defense as my Father and Brother once did. In the military, my knowledge of History served me well in a multiplicity of scenarios. In the end, it made me ‘look good’ in the eyes of fellow soldiers.
When it came time to revert to a private citizen, there was a period of soul-searching. I needed a job, but didn’t want to pursue a job I disliked simply because it offered a heftier paycheck. I researched and explored occupations from factory managerial work to work in Animal Shelters. Each had attractive elements; I enjoy being in a managerial position and I’m also an animal lover. But, as a young man with a young family (wife and two children in 1987), I dreaded a job that would not encourage me to wake up every day ‘willing’ to go to work. I knew that I needed a job that I can invest a career (20 to 30 years) without the fear of one day saying “I hate my job”. Once you say those four words, things may cascade out of control. I shared a desire for stability that is more from the Depression-era generation of my father, than from the fast-paced (ever changing ‘consultant’ position) environment of the 21st Century.
I knew that I needed a ‘hook’ to keep me vested in any occupation. That hook was ‘History’. My love of the subject meant I needed a niche in the academic world. My older brother had been a high school Math teacher and I had some knowledge of what I was getting into. So I started teaching I September of 1987, just two months after completing my service obligation to the United States Army. I’ve been teaching History ever since with only one school change- incredible stability by any measure. This year marks the end of my 30th year. In the interim, my earlier Undergraduate experience at Brooklyn College made my decision to earn an MA in History in the mid-1990’s an easy one.
So, your current feelings are understandable and fully expected. You can’t plan to be a millionaire. Such planning rarely pan out and the old adage “Money can’t by happiness” speaks for itself. I would like to amend this proverb by adding “…or stability and longevity.”
Yes, if I had the wealth of certain 19th C. historians (Edward Gibbon, author of Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire) I would not have become a high school teacher. However, I had to conform to a 20th C. world. In an academic setting I can remain as close as possible to the subject I love while still earning an income to raise a family. For me, it was the best possible compromise between feeding my desires and fulfilling my personal/ civic duties.
How you decide to pursue your destiny remains with you. All I advise is to realign your plans to what makes you happy in life and with respect to your civic duties.
Let me know what you think.
Mr.V (to his students)