Why I’m Doing a History Degree

(I posted this first on my student blog, but I’m in the process of slowwwwly moving things over and seeing as it’s the season of impending UCAS applications I thought this particular post had again become relevant. Not that history isn’t always relevant of course.)

Today, I thought I’d make a post on a more academic vein than I usually prefer to opt for. There’s no doubt that university life involves so much more than the degree, but it’s also important to appreciate we are only here after all because of our degree. The UCAS applications and A levels weren’t geared towards having fun at societies and learning the pros and cons of independent living; ultimately we’re here to study our chosen discipline. Through the pain of 8:30 lectures and the stress of deadlines however, sometimes I find it’s easy to lose sight of why I chose history. This is a sentiment I think most students go through at some point, especially during exam season (“why oh WHY did I chose this horrific subject??”). So in this post I thought I’d look back and consolidate some of the reasons why, despite how much I resent it some days, I chose a History degree – and why I have no regrets in doing so.

  • I had a wonderful history teacher. I feel no shame at all in admitting that my fabulous A level teacher at school was a huge influence in me deciding to pursue history. Impossibly clever, terrifyingly witty and generally very entertaining, she would conduct whole lessons on the ins and outs of the French Revolution without referring to any notes or plans. She’d done her undergrad at Birmingham and then a PhD at Cambridge (with her thesis being on Medieval gambling and horse racing) and there’s no doubt a little piece of me wanted to be like her; knowledgeable about seemingly everything and able to win the respect of all who met her. I was far from the only one – of the students who took A Level history I reckon at least 4/5 went on to do a History degree, and will largely in debt their decision to her.

  • History is essentially stories. As a child, I loved having my story book read to me each night. The reason I learnt to properly read at all was because 7 year old me thought we were progressing too slowly through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, so I started to read ahead. At school I loved English for the same reason, but the more I studied history the more I realised it offers the most fundamental stories of humanity. Since the beginning we have been telling tales of our ancestors, and the myths surrounding them, and to look back at history now – at not only the ‘truth’ of the past but also how people remember it or have told it since then, is to keep up this ancient tradition.
  • History is undeniably useful and relevant to the modern day. To quote George Santayana on a gobbit that I’m fairly sure appeared in 80% of all History personal statements: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It might be cliché, but it’s true. People who say history isn’t relevant to the modern day infuriate me, as no matter whatever political decision or social crisis we’re facing we’ve probably already dealt with a comparable situation in the past. I remember learning about the Wall Street Crash at the time of the 2008 recession and our teacher pointing out all the similarities in the situation. Take Brexit; a BBC 4 programme I heard on the radio just the other day had brought in 3 eminent historians to talk about the predicted implications of the decision based on UK’s relationship in the past with the EU. Looking back at how humanity has acted in the past (and the benefits and flaws of those methods) are key to being informed on taking such decisions in the present and future. Remembering this is an important one for me, as sometimes I worry that there’s ‘no point’ to my degree. The very reason I didn’t choose English (not to down on the subject) was because I thought I’d probably end up having a post-modernist existential crisis several times a week (“maybe the curtain is blue because the curtain is just blue – not because the author is trying to symbolise sadness blocking out the joy of the light of day?”) History has thankfully saved me from these.

quote-politics-is-history-in-the-present-tense-john-avlon-104-42-46

  • It’s insanely interesting. Out of our student house, I’m pretty sure I could bank on being the one to get away with talking about what I’m studying at the moment without boring my housemates to tears. Unlike Economics, English or Physics, to speak maybe a little generally, you can guarantee there will be a part of history people will find interesting. History is everywhere you look, on every holiday you go on, in every town you visit, behind every political decision made by our current government. There are certainly less interesting aspects, but as a subject I find that from Charlemagne to Hiroshima if you take the right angle most of the time you can be drawn into assigned reading through sheer natural interest.
  • There’s so much to study; and you get to choose. This leads on from my previous point; no matter what you find interesting there’s definitely some way you can adapt your degree in order to study exactly that. Compulsory modules in first year provide a grounding knowledge, but from second year onwards the options when choosing specialist modules are huge; last term my friend studied William of Orange and the Stuarts, and this term she’s learning African-American History, from the Slave Trade to Obama.
  • It’s so much more than just learning dates. The number of people who ask me to name dates; guys, no. History may have been a case of read and recall in decades gone by, but it’s hugely evolved as a taught discipline at university now. Increasingly as opposed to just ‘history’, we’re learning about the perceptions of history, how it’s presented and used and abused by various governments, why we as human feel a need to know our family histories, the ways in which history can be commercialised and exploited in the modern day. Of course, facts and figures and battles do still come into it – but history can also be studied in a far more philosophical way too, and from so many different angles – social history over economic? I think so.

(‘The History of Japan’ – educational, and hilarious.)

  • It incorporates lots of other disciplines. I’m sure there are those who would argue this is true for a lot of subjects, but to give an example; first year essay questions ranged from the evolution of medicine in the early modern world (Science), assessing religious fundamentalism in the modern day (International Relations and Theology) and looking at economic factors for European expansion (Economics).  Whatever your strengths or interests, History caters for those and you can head down the path which best suits you. In some ways I feel I’ve learnt more about religion, science and literature than I ever would have if I’d done a subject specific degree. No matter the discipline, the history of said subject is covered at some point.
  • You learn important transferable skills. Here it comes; the inevitable ‘career utility’ justifications. But again, it’s true – a History degree is far more than just learning about history. It equips you with highly regarded transferable skills that will be valued in almost every workplace. As listed on the Careers section on Exeter’s website, a History degree will teach you:
  1. Communication skills, both written and oral.
  2. Critical reasoning and analytical skills, including problem solving and creative            thinking.
  3. Highly-regarded and valuable research skills such as learning to disseminate and collate information.
  4. How to construct persuasive arguments and question assumptions by selecting and ordering relevant evidence.
  5. How to work in groups, accommodating different ideas and reaching agreements.
  6.  To think objectively and approach problems with an open mind.

These might sound generic but that’s sort of the point – History degrees teach important and flexible skills you can apply everywhere.

  • You can do anything with it. From Salaman Rushdie and Jonathan Ross to Sacha Baron Cohen and Gordon Brown – History graduates have gone on to do all manner of things. But whether you’re interested in media, politics, journalism, MI5, education or something completely different, a good degree in History is going to do nothing but help you. I’m always endlessly amused by the fact that at my Mum’s GP practice, the most promising, well-rounded and highly regarded doctor in training currently is a guy in his early 30s who first did a History degree before moving onto medicine. Whatever path you go down, it’s appreciated that history is an academically challenging degree that not only provides the transferable skills already mentioned, but also a strong cultural understanding and appreciation for the world we live in.

(If anyone reading this is thinking about choosing/applying to study a History degree at Exeter and has any questions about personal statements or the course content, feel free to email me at tessaboyd@hotmail.co.uk.)

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