Perhaps it is only fitting that I had the fortune (or is it curse?) of being a “millennial.” Somewhere, amid the swirling firestorm of the "Me, Me, Me Generation,"* I started thinking about the word “millennial.” A generational designation, obviously, but one built around the idea that my generation came of age 2,000 years after the “common era” of Western history began. Maybe this looms large in my mind because history is what I do. I studied, and am now employed, at a large public university in the Midwest. I am one of the kids who majored in history, even when the universe told me it was not “practical” and “not career focused.”
I am here to tell you the world needs us.
The world needs the psychologist as much as the CEO; the historian as much as the engineer. A functioning society depends on people not simply having the knowledge of how to put things together, but understanding why they do it. There is no greater feeling for me, as a professor, than to see a student connect the dots between The British Colonial project and current issues in the Middle East. I’m not just teaching, I am building a better, more informed citizenry. This also enters into social justice; although I do not explicitly state in my classes that I am providing a “social justice perspective,” an understanding of the world provides the knowledge and empathy that are critical in caring about others.** When you couple these analytical skills with the emphasis that the Arts place on reading and writing, you have a skill set that could realistically be used for any career.
Now, I understand that many students go in to college wanting a job when they get out. The media is filled with articles about the "best" and "worst" paying majors, making it clear to incoming freshman that the ultimate end game is a paycheck. This makes it tough for the arts before a student ever steps foot on campus. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that rocket science pays more than sociology. Add to this some political posturing, like Rick Scott's plan to make STEM majors cost less than the arts, and you have a national culture that is telling students that this is what matters, and everyone else is just "useless." Even if you decide to ignore your elders and pursue anthropology full-time, there is a good chance your graduate school will not pay you the same as a grad student in bio-mechanics. I thought making $11,500 as a teaching assistant in history was not half-bad, until I found out somebody in Polymer Sciences was making $22,000.
I am not naïve enough to think that everyone will study the liberal arts for the sake of doing it, knowing that it is not typically a path to the Forbes front page. However, I am naïve enough to believe that if society starts to laud those choices openly, maybe incoming students wont have to keep saying things like, “I love English Literature, but I’m majoring in marketing because I want a job.” Besides, most people, regardless of major, don't end up working in that field anyway. If this is the case, we really need to encourage students to major in what they want, be good at it, so even if they end up getting some random job, at least they will be a better and more engaged citizen for it (and they enjoyed college along the way!).
This brings me back to the name of my generation, “the millennials.” Two thousand years ago, thinkers did not have Fortune 500 companies or internet start-ups. Yet, mankind survived. They survived with an eye to the past, and a brain geared to the future. History, literature, and their ilk are over one Millennium old. If nothing else, my generation owes it to these ancients to carry on this legacy of great thinking, no matter how much technology it builds simultaneously. After all, we owe our very name to a legacy that is thousands of years older than us.
*I see no need to offer yet another rebuttal to Joel Stein, when this one is so on point to me as an historian.
**Okay, I was not going to respond to Joel Stein's article in TIME, but I would just like to mention that I am part of the “Me, Me, Me Generation,” and I do far more to advocate for thinking about others than Baby Boomer and Gen X politicians lauding Ayn Rand.