Image description: Torso of a man studying intensely
Everyone who studies history will know the universal reception to telling people about your degree:
“So you’re never going to get a job then?”
This sudden and unwanted interest in our future employment prospects is something all humanities students seem to deal with. And not only is it not funny (and obviously not true) it misses the point of higher education.
University should not simply be an assembly line equipping you to become a so-called ‘skilled worker’. Taking this view undermines what for many can be the most valuable part of going to university: the chance for personal development.
I myself have had doubts at times.
Before STEM students jump down my throat, I am not saying that these degrees offer no opportunity for such growth. Studying a STEM subject is not the same as studying a humanities degree, and I don’t want to comment on an experience that I don’t share.
What I will say, though, is a STEM student is far less likely to have to defend against this tired talking point that they are somehow wasting time and money studying a pointless degree.
I myself have had doubts at times. The topic comes up so often, it would be hard not to. There certainly have been moments during my time at Oxford when I’ve questioned myself: had I made a terrible mistake? Was I condemning myself to a lifetime of having to take any job I could take or be unemployed? Were people right about a history degree?
It was not until I took a moment to reflect that I realised just how backwards these questions were. Of course, it is important in our society to earn a living. But the idea that this should consume our thinking completely for the most important years of our development is ludicrous. We are worth more than our productive capacity.
And we are allowed to pursue areas of academia that interest us without immediately calculating how directly employable they are. It’s time we stopped feeling the need to justify our hobbies and interests by telling people (and ourselves) how good it will look on a C.V.
Everyone should have the chance to do what they love.
There is undoubtedly a socio-economic element to all this. For people from working-class backgrounds, the question of employability is not just well-natured a matter of pride, it’s the difference between having food on the table or not. This is something I have always been very conscious of. Unlike many of my peers, I wasn’t born with a back-up plan.
Yet why should personal development come with a price tag? Your background shouldn’t force you to make choices solely in the interest of a nameless future employer, rather than yourself.
Despite the difficulties, the chance to study history at Oxford remains one of the proudest achievements of my life. It was something I had never imagined for myself growing up and I still feel lucky every day to be here. No-one can lessen that feeling by telling me that my degree was a mistake.
Studying history has helped to make me in a way that no other subject could have. It was the perfect fit for me, and it informs everything I have done, both academically and outside of college. Everyone should have the chance to do what they love, and to use it to help find out who they are at such a formative time.
To some, I will probably sound hopelessly naïve. It is all well and good, they might say, but it doesn’t answer the question of what happens after you’ve finished the degree. Of course, this is true.
Maybe I am overly optimistic, but I believe people should be able to love what they do, not just during their degree but across the whole of their lives. There are many forms this can take. Some people will find the right path for them while studying their degree, others might need more time to ponder that question.
Both routes are ok. I am not saying that you can do a humanities degree and land your dream job straight away every time. But what you will be able to do is think: who am I as an individual and what do I really want from life? The answer may not lead to a road that is easy, but you will be a more complete person for asking it.
My degree has also given me something else that has been invaluable to my personal development: time. Not a lot, this is still Oxford after all, but enough to allow me to pursue my passions. I might otherwise never have been able to look twice at the opportunities that have given me some of my happiest memories, and led me to develop skills and interests I would never have had if things had been different.
If any of these exploits bolster my future employment prospects, that will be a bonus, but always one which is secondary to the enjoyment and growth I have gained from them.
For me, the best way to dispel the doubts in my own head was to confront them directly. I had chosen my degree because I was passionate about the subject and because I liked what it made me ask of myself. For future employment, I’ve embraced longer-term options and now have a much better understanding of both what will make me happy and how to achieve it.
I have still yet to get through Finals, and no doubt there will be moments in Trinity where I will have less pleasant things to say about a history degree. But I know that this decision is not one I will look back on with disappointment. My ‘useless’ degree has made me who I am and has given me more than I could ever have hoped for. I defy anyone to tell me then, that that is something I should regret.