Why I’m Studying A History Degree

Term two of second year has gotten off to a great start. I’m so glad to be back in the buzz of university life, have a schedule of basketball practices and Exeposé meetings to structure my week around and get stuck back into my degree. I was thrilled with how well received my One Second Everyday video was when it was shared on Exeter’s official Facebook page; 276 likes, 37 shares and over 5,000 views and counting! Looking back on it has made me realise how much fun I had last term – and how important it is to make the most of daily things; the walk to campus on a beautiful day, or weekend pancakes with my housemates. I will definitely be keeping it up for 2016, and now that I know the ropes of making a good compilation hopefully this one will be better than ever!

HistoryToday though, 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’re only here because of our degree. The UCAS applications and A levels weren’t for the purpose of 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, 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 History – and why I have no regrets about doing so.

  • I had a wonderful History teacher. I feel no shame in the slightest in saying 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 an undergrad and then a PhD (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.
  • The past teaches us about the future. 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. 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 – History has thankfully saved me from these!
  • It’s insanely interesting. Out of our 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, 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. There are certainly less interesting aspects, but as a subject I find that from Charlemagne to Hiroshima most of the time I get drawn into my 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 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 analysing the impact of famine (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 inevitably ‘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:

o   Communication skills, both written and oral
o   Critical reasoning and analytical skills, including problem solving and creative            thinking
o   Research skills such as disseminating and collating information
o   Construct persuasive arguments and question assumptions by selecting and            ordering relevant evidence
o   Work in groups, accommodating different ideas and reaching agreements
o   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.)

  • It’s a valuable degree. 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 or education, a good degree in History is certainly going to put you in a great position. It’s appreciated that History is academically challenging but also provides the transferable skills already mentioned and a strong cultural understanding for the world we live in.

(If anyone reading this is thinking about choosing to study a History degree at Exeter and has any questions, feel free to email me at tb397@exeter.ac.uk)