At this time of the year, when students are commencing or re-commencing their study of the past in History Departments at Universities across Britain, including here at Kingston, it is good to pause for breath for a moment and reflect briefly on the value of studying history.
To this end, the new issue of BBC History magazine for October, 2015, contains a very handy supplement on expert advice, practical tips and inspiration for students ‘hoping to plan a future based on the past’.
When it comes to careers in history, for example, the supplement provides some great details on how a degree in history can lead to all manner of careers, and it lists some famous celebrity graduates to illustrate the point.
From the world of the media, such history graduates include the broadcaster Jonathan Ross, who studied Modern European History at the University of London, and BBC radio presenter Simon Mayo, who graduated from Warwick University with a degree in History and Politics.
From the world of literature, another history graduate is the writer Penelope Lively, who found tremendous success as a writer of books for children and then of novels. Her best-selling novels include Moon Tiger, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1987. The acting world has a famous history graduate in the shape of the comedian and writer Sacha Baron Cohen, who graduated from Cambridge in 1993 with a degree in History. The Golden-Globe winner and Oscar-nominated actor has since become one of Britain’s best-known comics, whose creations have included Ali G and Borat.
And the world of British politics has witnessed numerous examples of history graduates rising through the ranks, including to the top job of Prime Minister: former PM Gordon Brown graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a First-Class degree in History, and stayed at the same institution to complete a PhD in History ten years later, titled ‘The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918-29’.
Another section in the BBC History magazine supplement contains a fascinating short article by Dr. Anna Whitelock, of Royal Holloway, University of London, on the role of the historian today, and the new challenges and opportunities of the digital age.
As Dr. Whitelock says in her opening line: ‘Has there ever been a better or more important time to study history? The past is alive, dynamic, controversial and hugely relevant’. She goes on to argue that history is constantly being written and rewritten, contested and reinterpreted. Moreover, history is more than just studying the past – it is also about ‘critically engaging with the present and future’.
Furthermore, in her estimation, a history degree is not just for those who want to be professional historians – ‘it is for anyone who is curious about the world around them and who wants to be a critically engaged citizen’.
Dr. Whitelock also points out that a history degree can lead to a career in law, business, publishing, heritage, teaching, media or politics, but it is ‘equally valuable for those wanting to become an artist, author, actor or even a computer game designer’.
Significantly, according to Whitelock, the digital age has brought new opportunities for historians, ‘opening up archives online, digitising documents and allowing the study of far-flung archives from home’.
That said, she also reminds us that ‘there is nothing better’ than visiting an archive and touching documents, and studying history can give access to ‘this vast treasure trove’. I couldn’t agree more! And those students who are about to embark on a Final Year dissertation will certainly have exciting opportunities to do this.
Studying history, Whitelock argues, also ‘requires students to consider what the archives of today will consist of for future generations of historians’. This is because there has been a revolution in communication, with tweets, texts, and e-mails rapidly replacing ‘traditional’ forms of contacts, such as hard-copy letters. This is something I have also pondered about myself in a previous blog (see my reflections on the possible dangers of ‘Digital Decay’ in April, 2015).
Dr. Whitelock then offers a nicely succinct summary of the dilemmas and challenges faced by historians today in the light of these rapid changes: the key questions, she writes, are this: what should be preserved? How? By whom? And for whom?
The full article by Anna Whitelock can be found in the special ‘Study History’ supplement in the new issue of BBC History (October, 2015).
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University