The latest issue of the popular and best-selling BBC History magazine (October, 2018), which devotes its main article to Anne Boleyn (‘A victim of her father’s ambition?’), and also reflects on the nature of appeasement in the 1930s, includes some very sound advice, tips and inspiration for students ‘hoping to plan a future based on the past’. It also offers some welcome defence of the subject of History.
As this blog has noted on a number of previous occasions, the study of History is currently under siege from a number of worrying directions, including University sector financial cuts, general government scepticism towards the Humanities, or even hostile academic fashions and creeds (such as the absurdities of post-modernism). It has therefore become even more important for historians to strongly defend their discipline.
In an opinion piece in the BBC History magazine by Dr. Alice Taylor, who is reader in medieval history at King’s College in London, she notes the recent negative headlines and complaints made by the UK’s politicians about the economic value of arts and humanities degrees, prejudices which are beginning to ‘devalue and mask those vital sectors of our economy and society which are either staffed by history and humanities graduates, or are dependent on a broader social and cultural interest in the past continuing’.
Indeed, Dr. Taylor points out in her article for the magazine that graduates in History work in multiple sectors, many of them high-paying (such as law and the civil service), and many of them ‘directly related to their degree itself’, such as curation and conservation, museums, heritage, archival work, ‘not to mention being a history teacher or, even, a professional historian!’ A report published in 2016, for example, found that the heritage tourism industry ‘actually supports more than one in every 100 jobs in the UK’.
In addition, in Dr. Taylor’s estimation, there are other equally important and sound reasons for studying History, such as the ‘methods of historical practice coupled with the historian’s profound concern with how past societies functioned’. Historians ‘are trained to treat what they read critically’, not just read, look at or listen to a source, but also to question it. Where does it come from? Who wrote it, designed it, wanted it? Who paid for it, and why? What kinds of evidence, data and perception lie behind different views? As Dr. Taylor observes, ‘in a world where fake news can influence elections, the methods of the historian – what history degrees train their students to acquire – are needed more than ever before’.
Moreover, historians ‘are not just people who analyse sources; we have to think about the phenomenon of society itself, in all its varieties, and communicate what we think about it’. Historians, as Dr. Taylor aptly puts it, ‘try and understand how things happen and what their consequences were. This is something that is important and valued. It’s important not just in an empirical sense: that historians have the knowledge to correct gross misinterpretations of the past bandied about as truths on the internet and by political elites alike’.
Finally, Dr. Taylor reminds us that we live in a rapidly changing world: ‘The first iPhone was released only 11 years ago’. It is a mistake to think that History is not adapting to and trying to understand such profound change: historians regularly write ‘new narratives of the past which challenge past orthodoxies’. The skills of the historian are thus ‘profoundly connected to understanding and working within this changing society’.
So, the next time you hear somebody question the value of History, point them to this invaluable article. The full version of it is available in the latest edition of BBC History magazine (October, 2018), which is on sale now.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University