In Defence of History*

It is being (increasingly) observed that Oxbridge historians swell the ranks of influential Brexiteers. For example:
My undergraduate degree was History. At Cambridge. And so I feel a touch defensive. 
I loved my undergraduate degree, finding it enormously stimulating to be challenged constantly by both amazing academics and contemporaries to think, and think hard. But while the degree isn’t a course in applied contrarianism, it is fair comment that contrarianism is respected and can be academically well-rewarded. (Brits of a certain age might remember Newman and Baddiel’s History Today, which was funny because it contained a germ of truth.)

For the uninitiated, the first year of History at Cambridge consisted (in my day) of three ‘Survey’ courses and a translation paper (for example, my first term was British Constitutional and Political History 1868-1990). Each Survey course consisted of eight weeks. Each week would see your supervisor set an essay question on something about which you had zero knowledge. Zero.
If you were lucky (and in my first term I was very lucky) your supervisor would suggest texts (books and journal articles) that you might usefully gut en route to building your argument. Not a book or two, but maybe twelve books and ten journal articles: more than could be read, let alone read and noted, by anyone over the course of a week. Footnotes and references in these texts could then open other avenues of reading taking you down interesting or less interesting paths of inquiry.

You could also build a strategy of absorbing information through lectures if you wished (lecture courses would be eight weeks long and might/ might not overlap with some aspect of a Survey course). 

Regardless of your strategy, around 150 hours after the essay title that you had been set was revealed, you had to submit a 2,000-3,500 word text. 167 hours after the ‘reveal’ you had to defend your argument against someone who had spent their adult life becoming a world expert on the topic about which you knew nothing a week before. Points awarded for cogency of argument, dealing with the literature, originality, etc.

OK, you’ll agree that this sounds fun. But getting back to the ‘Oxbridge Historians are nutters’ meme for a second, I think it is fair to say that along the way a History undergraduate (via trial by ordeal) gets:

  1. Pretty good at processing large amounts of material in an unreasonably short amount of time;
  2. Pretty good at drawing from this large amount of material a reasonably compelling and structured view (of variable quality);
  3. Pretty good at written exposition and verbal debating on matters about which they are only seven days in from cluelessness.

This is not really the *point* of the first year of a Cambridge History degree. And it is not all that an individual gets. But – perhaps unlike many other degrees – History doesn’t punish over-confidence. At undergraduate level I would argue the opposite. The sort of characteristics observed in Rafael Behr’s polemical opinion piece in the Guardian would not be beaten out of a History undergraduate but could feasibly enhance their bearers’ prospects.

Might other degrees or time in the world of work deliver these skills? Almost certainly given that the skills are not specific to folks who studied history at Oxbridge. Insofar as I picked up these skills, it was during my History undergraduate degree.

As to the notion that an Oxbridge History degree inculcates the bearer with a notion of British exceptionalism, this seems off – at least from a Cambridge perspective. The only notion with which I found myself inculcated was that History has ontological/ epistemological complexities that are *very much a thing*. 

During my degree, when meeting students from Europe or the US, they would typically ask whether I wanted to be a History teacher. There are some truly awesome history teachers out there, but it has not (yet) been my ambition to join their ranks. When I tried to explain that in the UK a History degree is understood as a general training of the mind they didn’t all laugh. Nor should they have.

*No, not the past. The undergraduate degree.


2 thoughts on “In Defence of History*

  1. Hello! Recently discovered your work, and generally like it so far as I understand it. I’m not sure you’re really defending history degrees here, though. At least not in the context of producing the polticians John Band lists. They’re over confident and good at defending or promoting a particular point of view. Things that are good for them and sometimes their parties, but surely often not so good for the greater, er, good?

    • Thank you – you make your point very kindly. And it is probably fair.
      In retrospect I was reacting against the inference that a History degree from Oxbridge pushed a certain worldview on to its recipient, rather than developing skills that could be used for good or ill.

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