Study history: How looking at the past can equip you for the future

Dr Alice Taylor explains how looking at the past can equip you for the future…

The 14th-century Bodiam Castle, Sussex. “All historians and students of history have to think about how the society they are studying functions,” says Dr Alice Taylor. (Picture by Getty Images)

On 11 June 2018, the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs published a report entitled ‘Treating Students Fairly: the Economics of Post-School Education’. The report made many recommendations: it judged the government’s aim of marketising higher education to be unsuitable to the nature of the sector; called for the reinstatement of means-tested loans and grants; and proposed that high interest rates on current student loans be reduced. But it also said that full-time degrees were monopolising the higher education market, and not providing graduates with the necessary skills to enter the labour market.

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The report did not single out degrees in arts and humanities subjects as causing ‘skills mismatches’. Despite this, though, some newspaper articles did focus on history, seizing on juicy quotations from one of the report’s ‘informal feedback’ sessions. The study of history was, accordingly, singled out. Headlines appeared with such provocative statements as “the UK has too many biology and history graduates and not enough workers with vocational skills”.

Students at the Royal High School celebrate their A-Level results outside school in August 2007 in Bath, UK. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Worries about the economic value of arts and humanities degrees seem to be increasing; certainly, they do not appear to be a high funding priority. Let us not forget former cabinet minister Robert Halfon saying back in January that “if someone wants to do medieval history that’s fine… but all the incentives from government and so on should go to areas the country needs and will bring it most benefit”.

Comments like these 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. Graduates in history work in multiple sectors, many of them high-paying (law and the civil service, to name but two), and many of them directly related to their degree itself (curation and conservation, museums, heritage, archival work, not to mention being a history teacher or, even, a professional historian!). A report published in 2016 found that the heritage tourism industry actually supports more than one in every 100 jobs in the UK. Meanwhile, devaluing the economic contribution of history teachers devalues the economic value of basic literacy (and indeed numeracy) which history teachers promote every day of their working lives.

But why study history at university level? What is its value in a world where new technologies dominate our professional and social lives, and an ability to code is seen as having the same high status and capacity for social advancement as the ability to read once did?

The negative response would be that history can’t carry this kind of value, not any more: far more valuable, surely, to study a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Yet one of the most influential thinkers of the past few years, Yuval Noah Harari – who operates on a truly global scale, with his books Sapiens and Homo Deus translated into nearly 50 languages – is a historian. What makes a trained historian one of the world’s most-read voices on the relationship between the past, present and future?

The answer lies, as always, in 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. This means not just reading, looking at or listening to a source – whether a newspaper report, a medieval charter, an interview or a 16thcentury woodcut – but questioning it. A history degree trains you to ask questions of your material: where does it come from? Who wrote it, designed it, wanted it? Who paid for it and why? How powerful and successful was this kind of source or message? What kinds of evidence, data and perception lie behind different views? 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.

Thinking outside the box

Historians aren’t 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. Regardless of what period or place a historian specialises in, all historians and students of history have to think about how the society they are studying functions. Not only that society’s economic bases (who is rich, who is poor; how are the rich, rich and the poor, poor; how were clothes made and acquired, buildings built and everything paid for) but also how that society legitimates its very existence.

Historians of all periods are no strangers to how rulers and ruling classes legitimate their decisions through the use of the most up-to-date communication methods. The Emperor Augustus, back in the first century AD, proclaimed himself to be the son of a god and had an autobiography written to tell the world how great he was – a piece of political publicity so successful we’re still reading it today.

The historian’s skills are profoundly connected to understanding and working within a changing society

Historians 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. It’s also important for the direction society is moving in, right now.

Members of tech companies are increasingly writing articles about the importance of employing liberal arts majors (in the US) or humanities graduates (in the UK) in addition to graduates from engineering and computer science. In short, they want to employ people who can both learn new technical skills but who are also trained to think creatively and professionally about what the social and cultural consequences of these new technologies might be, what particular social or political issue might need addressing in its design, and who might be interested in the data gathered by a new social media app or fitness-tracker.

Undergraduates of Oxford University walking to lectures, well equipped with books. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Recently, the journalist and academic John Naughton wondered whether a history or philosophy background might have helped Mark Zuckerberg foresee and thus prevent Facebook data being used to influence elections and world politics. This idea – that history and historical practice is necessary to the direction, ethics and consequences of new technologies – is gathering pace.

We live in a rapidly changing world. The first iPhone was released only 11 years ago. It is a mistake to think that the way a history degree is conducted and assessed isn’t changing equally rapidly: we teach different kinds of history, hear different voices, and write new narratives of the past which challenge past orthodoxies.

We write essays, articles and books, but also write blog posts, design websites and apps, and create new ways for many different sections of the public to interact with the past in collaboration with librarians, archivists and curators. The skills of the historian are profoundly connected to understanding and working within this changing society. That new industries are beginning to see the value of a historical education is surprising only to those who have rarely thought in detail about what a historical approach to the world means.

Dr Alice Taylor is a reader in medieval history at King’s College London

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This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine