“A Great Degree of Value”

As you may remember, in October this year, I partook in a panel on “Why I study history?”, so, I was really interested to see the following story in History Today (a very readable magazine):

“John Tosh argues that historians should find ways to teach undergraduates the practical applications of their uniquely insightful discipline.

How many history graduates leave university believing that their hard-earned knowledge can be put to practical use? Those entering the teaching profession or the heritage industries will need little persuading. But what about history graduates who enter business or the public service, or who undertake training for other professions? They may be persuaded by the argument that history develops analytical and communication skills. But other disciplines make the same claim with equal validity. A degree in history may not be a dead end, but for very many students it leads nowhere beyond a leisure interest.

Students can hardly be blamed for underestimating the relevance of their discipline. For they get little encouragement from those who should know better. The reluctance of most academic historians to advocate the practical application of their discipline results in cohorts of students who have little or no idea of the value of the subject. Periodically government ministers and spokespeople for the profession engage in acrimonious argument about the purposes served by the study of history. But one seldom hears a ringing endorsement of the proposition that history provides much of the intellectual equipment needed by the well-informed, critically aware citizen. To know that the past can illuminate the contours of the present is to be better equipped to make intelligent judgments about critical public issues.

At present the structure of the university curriculum makes little allowance for perspectives of this kind. Most students begin their studies with a module on the nature of the discipline, which usually gives some attention to the social role of historical knowledge. This is certainly an advance on the situation 50 years ago when history was taught in an unreflexive manner. But for most students, evaluating the possible applications of historical knowledge stops there. They are likely to encounter E.H. Carr’s definition of history as ‘an unending dialogue between past and present’, but to apply this to their understanding of the past rather than the present.

The time-honoured climax of the history degree is the ‘special subject’ in which any contemporary resonance is completely submerged by immersion in the primary sources; the dissertation involves more of the same. On some courses students may have the opportunity to study the impact of past masters of the craft on their contemporaries (Gibbon and Macaulay being prime candidates), but they are seldom encouraged to make a comparable evaluation of the major historians at work today.

My proposal is that, in order to maximise the practical utility of the subject, university teachers should make a space in which we can discuss with our finalists the bearing which their studies may have on their engagement as citizens. Studying history for three years imparts not only a knowledge of particular periods and places in the past, but the ability to think historically: to take the measure of the gulf between past and present, to recognise trajectories whose direction and dynamic may not be immediately obvious and to distinguish between what is enduring and what is transient in our present circumstances. What better preparation for life beyond university than a recognition that these principles illumine the present as well as the past?

Teachers and students of history will always feel more at ease dealing in concrete cases rather than generalisations. We now have a major resource of such concrete cases in the History and Policy website (, where the application of historical research to current politics is demonstrated across the spectrum of social, economic and foreign policy. Examination questions could reflect this emphasis.

The student specialising in international relations might tackle the question: ‘Why have makers of foreign policy so often resorted to historical analogy in order to understand the present?’Students more drawn to social history might be asked to ‘evaluate the view that key features of the British welfare state today can only be understood in the light of the pre-20th century Poor Law’. Government and business leaders continue to judge academic subjects by their ability to deliver ‘transferable skills’, by which they usually mean the generic skills of analysis and communication. The fallacy lies in that slippage from ‘transferable’ to ‘generic’. Why is the argument confined to skills which are common to most disciplines? Just as valuable are those skills which are largely the property of one discipline. The next time a government minister demands that universities should focus on transferable skills, we should gently point out that historical perspective is a transferable skill; it is essential to the informed citizen and it is more carefully cultivated in university history departments than anywhere else. Our graduates should know this too. Potentially they are in a privileged position ‘to test modern experiment by historical experience’( as A.F. Pollard put it) and to contribute their insights to public debate.

John Tosh is Professor of History at Roehampton University, London. The fifth edition of his book, The Pursuit of History, is published by Pearson Education this month.”