Why should you major in history?

Dr. Richard S. Gibson (’69) reflects on the impact that the study of history has had on his life and career, equipping him for “a very volatile yet exciting work world and economy.”

This is both an amazing and timely question for me.

Below is a quick recap of my career.  Why is this recap important?  It concretely illustrates some important points about learning how to study history.

After graduation, I was a Sales Supervisor at the former JL Hudson Company; followed by 2 years in U.S. Army Military Intelligence; another bachelor’s degree but in psychology; two years in U.S. Navy financial management; 4 years in local, state, and national political campaign management; a career in training and developing supervisors and leaders; a career in non-profit human services management; a couple of years as a Chamber of Commerce Executive Director; an Ed.D. in change management and adult education; a career as an internal organization development consultant; 26 years as an Executive Coach to executives and leaders all over the country; coaching others in successful job and career changes; life and life vision coaching; and now, work as a Spiritual Director. I also have had plenty of volunteer leadership jobs along the way that were often as demanding as paid work.

The skills I have been using in my career, and that had their origin in studying history at Alma:

Much of it is about “how to think.”

I believe my career is an amazing testimony to the intellectual, analytical, and thinking skills that I learned largely as a history major, and as a liberal arts graduate, as well. I could not have changed careers so many times to match my ever-changing and evolving interests (and deeper understandings of what I am called to do with my life) had it not been for the foundation in studying history. Rarely did I just “change jobs,” though I certainly could have. I “changed careers.” For current and future Alma graduates, I suspect I could be “walking testimony” about how studying history can prepare one well for a very volatile yet exciting work world and economy.

Being a thoughtful and careful observer/learner – “always a student”

I lived (and am still living out) out being a “data-gatherer, synthesizer, and interpreter” of work cultures and climates.  This includes: (1) paying attention to trends in the economy and workplaces; (2) developing a deepening understanding of teams, groups and individuals; (3) knowing how important it is to learn from the past to avoid repeating it; and, most especially, (4) knowing the difference between objective, verifiable “facts” and someone’s interpretations that are perceived as facts and, are often used for decision-making.

There is always complexity

In almost all my work I’ve had to “make sense” of complexity in many different forms and with many surprises along the way. The study of history began to teach me how to “make sense” of apparent contradictions, conflict, cause and effect, and the wonderful concept of “inter-active effects”. It taught me how many variables or circumstances influence many others. I certainly saw that in my study of World War II in Europe.

Writing – A Given

It was a grueling learning experience at Alma but very much worth it. I even was appointed as a student assistant in the department helping to grade and edit papers. That skill helped me have a positive and visible impact on my work colleagues and supervisors – just because I had some sense about how to write clear reports, recommendations, and present ideas, especially creative ideas (those were special). While others I worked with may have felt intimidated with writing assignments, I took them on with gusto. My Alma senior history thesis helped prepare me and laid the foundation for what it would take to do a solid doctoral dissertation many years later.

“It’s all in the eyes of the beholder”

As a history major, a life long learner, and a professional, it has been critical to understand bias, prejudice, projections and perceptions – both knowing my own and recognizing those of others. That, of course, is so key to careful historiography. That skill quickly showed up in the workplace in work discussions and meetings; writing; personal relationships; coaching others; and the list goes on and on. All of that is so helpful and a necessary practical awareness in reasonably successful day to day living – professionally and personally.

Research: Almost Another Given

While all of my research at Alma and in the History Department was qualitative, I was trained to understand the importance of source documents, secondary resources, and meta-research. Again, those research skills were invaluable from time to time in many jobs. And, again, I was not intimidated by those assignments. Added to the quantitative research skills I had to learn in graduate school, I was well armed by the time I got to my dissertation.  In recent years, those same skills have been critical in making sense of the explosion of Internet sources.

Knowing and Deciding “Context”

This can be a difficult term to define. Yet, over and over throughout my career and in my personal relationships, I have sought to understand “context.” That is: Where is somebody or some organization “coming from”? What is the background”? What are the cultures or values embodied in a leader or an organization? What are the underlying values, beliefs or experiences that are driving someone or some group or an organization? What are all the market forces, societal forces, demographic forces at play – covertly or overtly? How can I explain myself more clearly? How can I understand another more clearly?

Reading:  Definitely another given.

Always loved it, even before Alma. I learned to love it even more while buried in books in my dorm room or at my study carrel at the library. Now I do it in bed, on the couch, on vacation, and on the road. I’m now mentoring adult learners as they learn to read and write. That is such a joy. I know how powerful a tool that is for each of us.

I know this may not a particularly polished piece of writing. Yet, it is writing from the heart. And, my heart has always been with Alma and the History Department and always will be.

Story published on December 29, 2014