We all think about our past decisions on a daily basis and frequently ask, “did I make the right choice?” In today’s highly competitive job market, those of us who chose to study the humanities–and especially those who pursue graduate degrees in the field– and are not in academia ruminate over this same question. Why, out of the things I could’ve studied, why did I spend my time getting a Master’s in History? I’m not teaching right now, and don’t plan to do so for a while (have you seen what adjuncts make!?) Sure wasn’t for the money, the fame or the power. So why? Why did have I spent a total of six years reading, writing and learning about the past?
The answer is simple: because I love it. I love history. I love the humanities. Aristotle says that–and I’m paraphrasing here–that a man (or woman) is free for no consequential reason. They’re free for freedom’s sake. And that’s part of why I chose to study History. The other reason has to do with our defective education system and our immediate social conditions. I suck at math, real bad. I’ve never been able to do more than just simple, elementary math. In fact, it was in the fifth grade where I think I stopped at any significant progression of my math skills. The second was just the fact that I grew up in a household composed of two adults both with High School as their highest education. My parents, born in the early 1960s, grew up in the post-war urban industrial bubble, believing that a you can get a good job and get through life with a High School diploma. So the point is that growing up, I wasn’t taught the importance of a college education.
It wasn’t until late in my High School years where I really started pondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. Coming from a family where both my grandfathers and father served in the military in some capacity, I figured that joining the Army at 18 was the best thing for me. Unfortunately, I graduated in 2003. Yeah, that’s right. The year the United States of America invaded Iraq. In fact, I remember that up until March-April 2003, I was pretty much going to sign up. Once I started seeing the whole post- 9/11 “War on Terrorism” unfold, with the subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (which I still ended up going seven years later, but that’s another story) I decided not to enlist.
Essentially, the decision to study History in some form took place between April and May 2003. At that point, I readily submitted an application to a good, yet private university that accepted pretty much everyone and got in. But then, for some reason I can’t recall, I decided apply to the more prestigious, public university that denied me entry to the Associate’s in Education degree program based on (you guessed it!) my sucky SAT scores, unfairly influenced by my inferior math skills. In any case, I reapplied to the university’s then lowest-tiered program:an Associate’s degree in Dental Assistance that required you to pretty much just breathe. But no matter, I had to take all the same Gen-Ed classes. And it was precisely in my first two years as an undergrad where I met the professor that made me love the humanities.
During these two short, yet greatly influential years, my Harvard educated teacher assigned us none other than the crème of world literature: Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad; Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote and many more. I absolutely fell in love with them. I grew with their teachings and symbolisms, and became a “man of letters” of sorts. In fact, I knew that at one point or another, after my teaching experience, I wanted to pursue a career in the humanities and academia.
Fast forward seven years, more or less, with five of those with a stint in the Army, and I find my self applying to grad school. Again, I found myself getting shafted by the GRE, denied initial application only to have to “prove” myself to the dicks at the History Department for the first semester that this abrasive and presumably dysfunctional veteran could perform at a graduate level. Fortunately for me, I was able to kick ass and take names, if you will. With the exception of one “B” grade, I graduated with all “As” and wrote a 250 plus page thesis on music and nationalism in contemporary Caribbean and Latin America. Even got accepted to PhD program. Word. So, why am I not in academia, you ask?
Simple: there’s no money in it, not upfront at least. Modern-day economic conditions compel me to produce my livelihood (damn you, Marx!). The truth is that most PhD students are living below the poverty line teaching for a meager wage and funding in order for them to finish their career. Forget the fact that you have to study whatever “flavor of the month” is special to that mentor or department. I couldn’t financially survive five more years of borderline poverty just so I can make my post-teen undergrad dream come true. Fortunately for me, I was able to land a sweet job as a Territory Sales Manager for a awesome company that gave me the experience and competitive edge for me to pursue a promising career in sales. But that doesn’t happen for a lot of people with a Master’s in the humanities.
So then, is a pursing a graduate degree in History for suckers? Yes and no, depending on how you see it. Had I done an MBA, I would’ve probably been making 80K plus a year right now. But that’s something outside my skill set, I believe. I wanted to pursue a career in academia and was successful, for the most part. And that’s precisely the problem with liberal arts departments and programs today. They need to be helping their students in diversifying their skills to be able to be more competitive in the workforce. Chances are, they have some sales/retail or some other type of monetizeable skill that can supplement what is mistakenly seen as an useless degree. The bottomline is that I don’t regret it. I’m glad I did it. I have an advanced degree in a field that although is not always immediately redeemable, it has provided me with many skills that I use daily. Because I love it.