What’s the point of studying History?

As I prepare for the students to arrive at my new university, it’s a good time to stop and think about what it means to teach History students – and, more importantly, what it might mean to be a History student. It’s something I think about quite a lot, but had especially brought to my attention earlier in the year when I was attending one of the many rallies around the UK to protest against the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim travel ban. If in my own little world I had reason to ponder the impact teaching History has on those studying it, numerous placards readily declared the importance of knowing our history.

Muslim Ban
I was pleased to come away from the protest with a photo of this great placard, made by Birmingham artist JC Graney (@J_C_Graney_Art)

So, what is the point of studying History? Most attempts to answer that question start with the subject itself, but perhaps it might be helpful to start instead with the student. Which leads us to a slightly different question: what is a History student? It’s an odd question but it’s one that every student on a History course or tutor leading one has their own answer for, even if we don’t usually give voice to it.

If you’re looking round a university on an open day, thinking about applying for the History degree, then you probably have an idea of what you think a History student might be. You’re probably wondering if you fit the bill or would get along with your classmates.

If you’re a History student sat in a lecture hall or seminar room, reading in the library or discussing uni life down the pub, then you probably have an idea of what you’re supposed to be as a History student. It can be rather energising if you think you’re up to it. It can be equally disheartening if you think you’re not.

For those of us giving the lectures, leading the seminar discussions, marking the essays and all the rest, we also have an idea. Or perhaps ideas plural. Even if you turned up on day one of the job thinking all students would be essentially the same or work in the same sort of way, that myth would soon be dispelled. There are the confident students who know they’ve been well-prepared but can be thrown when something important falls into a blindspot. There are the quiet students who simply cannot understand why everyone else is so ready to speak up, but can sometimes leapfrog them all when given the chance to go and work in their own way. There are the passionate ones who might just do better than the more capable but bored ones, probably on the wrong course.

But what makes, in particular, a History student? My own personal approach to this is to think of all History students as historians-in-training. Now, this is ridiculous for a few reasons. For a start, not all students have the ability or interest to take it beyond their degree. But, as I’ve blogged before, it’s worth questioning some of the distinction drawn between the tutor and the student.

Us academics may well have been amongst the most eager of our peers when students ourselves, but we are not drawn from a different pool. The only real difference between the tutor and the student is time. Time spent building up that internal archive of historical knowledge and developing those same key skills as History students: research, contextualisation, communication and critical thinking.

These skills can be put to use in almost any setting. In an arts & humanities subject like History you’re not being trained for a certain line of work. Very few History students actually end up writing History books (which is perhaps the easiest way to define a historian, though not an unproblematic one). Even those who go on to do a Masters or a PhD in History go from there to a wide range of careers.

A passion for History and an understanding of how it’s researched and written leads many History graduates into teaching the subject, but there are other ways to put the degree to very direct use, including work in the conservation, heritage and museum sectors. And an appreciation of how important it is to preserve and make available what one generation leaves behind for the next also leads some History graduates to work in libraries or archives. Research and communication skills can be put to use in media and journalism, a whole host of roles in local government, the civil service or the voluntary sector, as well as politics, or even business.

But the usefulness of the transferable skills acquired from studying History is not just that you can take them almost anywhere. You can also put them to use wherever you already are. They can be helpful for moving up as well as out. Whether it’s a matter of confidence in your presentation and communication skills or your ability to undertake research and analysis, tackling complex nuances whilst keeping in mind the big picture, most senior roles involve some element of the skills honed on a History degree.

This is why the squeamishness of most History academics over employability is misplaced. Yes, it’s often an agenda crassly implemented with little understanding of the realities of each subject. But just because we love our subject and want to bury ourselves in it, doesn’t mean we should expect the same of our students. It’s quite healthy for what you study at university to just be one part of your life. It’s a huge part of why people want to study History that those universal skills practised can come into play almost anywhere.

Which, of course, means that it’s not just about skills you take into your working life. Studying History trains you to be an informed and critical citizen. To be blunt, it allows you to refine your bullshit detector. To spot the familiar or predictable mistakes being made and lies being told. To avoid either getting overwhelmed by the mass of information thrown at us everyday or losing sight of what it all means. It trains you to funnel all of this into a coherent and convincing argument. All of which might sound rather aggressive and adversarial. Debate is certainly important. But there’s another value to studying History, which is seeing things from another perspective.

History is not a collection of stories that could take place anywhere and anywhen. This becomes especially obvious when we look back beyond the modern era. The importance of studying what Professor Keith Wrightson calls the ‘deep past’ is that ‘it creates meaning’.

”It helps us to understand ourselves in time, in a deeper way. By exposing twenty-first century attitudes and values and experiences to a much deeper comparative context. Looking at the distant past can alert us to the sheer otherness of the past, to the reality of deep and fundamental change in the course of four or five centuries, and to the provisional and contingent and temporary nature of so much that we take for granted today, as well as the family resemblances which can still be found. That’s an exercise which can be enormously provocative and stimulating, a challenge that helps us understand better our own place in time.”

And by recognising that ‘our own place in time’ is fundamentally different from that of most human beings who have lived is an intensive exercise in seeing the world from someone else’s point of view. That’s even before we get on to the myriad different experiences and perceptions that are possible of the same event. To study History properly is to practice empathy. At a time when our politics is defined (even more than usual) by how we react to those ‘other people’, that means studying History can be a radical act.

So there’s no one thing that a History student is or will be. No one thing or set of things that a History degree sets you up for. You can take the skills you learn into any aspect of your life, including employing them in arenas you might not have been or felt able to enter before.

And so, of course, it’s complete nonsense to pretend that all History students are historians-in-training. But it is a useful nonsense. Useful because there’s nothing in the practice of being a historian that can’t, at the appropriate level, be fruitfully taken elsewhere.

The historian-in-training is the informed, confident, critical and empathetic citizen-in-training.

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