As a career center director, I often ask alumni about their job titles, employers and other career-related topics. But of all the questions I pose to alumni, my favorite by far is an unexpected one: “What was your favorite ‘useless’ class?” I go on to explain what I mean by this: the class you took because it fit your schedule, because it fulfilled a requirement, or maybe even because it was the only class still open when you registered. The question confuses some readers: “Wait a minute — if it was useless how could it be my favorite?” So some reply literally about a class they wish they had never taken; and perhaps you remember a few of those yourself. But most liberal arts graduates get it. They know exactly what I’m referring to: that “useless” class that changed their life in unimagined ways.
I receive long replies about how they have spent every summer touring Civil War battlefields due to the history course that sparked a lifelong interest in the Civil War. Or how they practice medicine differently from their colleagues due to the philosophy class that changed their perspective on life. Or the language course that led to study abroad and then led to an international consulting career. How the readings in a literature course touched their soul and started their career as a therapist. The sketchpad and pens they tuck into their suitcase when they travel because of the art class that taught them a new way to view and interpret the world.
My current students get it too. When I ask them if they have taken a class they thought would be useless, only to find it was valuable, about 60-70 percent of them raise their hands. And I learn about new majors pursued, career paths forged, connections to professors and ideas they would never have known otherwise, and life-changing decisions made.
Interesting take from one of our great literary historians. This comes from an interview McCullough did with Morley Safer on 60 minutes. Here is the pertinent passage as excerpted by The Washington Post:
Morley Safer: You, you, calling us historically illiterate.
David McCullough: Yes. I feel that very much so. I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn’t know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.
Morley Safer: But are the teachers themselves semi-illiterate in history?
David McCullough: Well we need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers. I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.
We just received word that Joe Hackman, Messiah History Department class of 2002, recently served as the Guest Chaplain for the State of Pennsylvania and opened the PA Legislature in a word of prayer. Here is the official news story:
Senator Mensch hosted the Guest Chaplain for the State of Pennsylvania, Dr. Joseph Hackman, who is the Lead Pastor for Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. Joe grew up in Emmaus, Pa and has previously worked in Student Life at Eastern Mennonite University and as a social studies teacher at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. Joe is married to Angela and they have a three year old daughter. To listen to his prayer and introduction, visit
Why not start something similar in your own community?
Ephrata (PA) Public Library is recording the local stories of 2012 as part of its “Community Memory Project.” The staff is interviewing patrons and establishing an oral history record of how people have experienced the year. Penny Talbert, the director of the library, is encouraging local people to tell their stories in the hopes that it will encourage community, civility, and compassion.
This is a wonderful idea. I have read very little about public libraries as venues for public history, but what the Ephrata Library is doing seems to be an obvious use of the staff’s time and resources. I hope more libraries pursue such community memory projects and consider staffing their libraries with at least one librarian who has some public history credentials. Public libraries are great places to tell the story of a local community.
Should you get an MA or Ph.D to work in a history museum?
I talk to many students interested in museum work. They ask about what training they should get for this. My story is pretty straight now. For better or worse, an MA seems to be necessary to get ahead in the museum world. Whether it’s an MA in museum studies, a related field like public history or public humanities or curatorial studies, or a straight MA in history or art history; that depends on interests and goals. But a masters is now entry-level, or necessary to get beyond entry-level.
But some of the students ask about a Ph.D. Will getting a Ph.D. help them get a job in a museum? Would it help them get promoted? Will it help them to do better museum work?
My instinct is that the answer to all of these questions is no. Moreover, I think that in many cases, a Ph.D. is not only not useful, but actually teaches the wrong things for museum work. More on that later, and what should be done to fix that.
There are three parts to this essay. First, is a Ph.D. necessary to get a museum job? Next, is it useful – that is should you get one anyway, even if they’re not necessary? And finally, after I argue that it’s not – what could be done – either by an individual, or a department, to fix the degree to make it useful.