As the majority of students who take undergraduate courses in history will not become professional historians it seems reasonable to ask, why bother? With no definite career prospects in sight history, coupled with the ever escalating costs of university courses, might seem like a dead end.
Proponents of the liberal arts, in the not too distant past, would have been mystified by such utilitarian attitudes. They saw a few years at the “varsity” as the finishing touches in youngsters’ personal development, an opportunty to reflect on the world at leisure whilst simultaneously gaining the skills necessary to take their places in the world.
If the actual content of a history degree is seen as less than useful in the world of employment the same can be said of most other degree programs. Scientists learn laboratory skills and the importance of scientific rigor during their college years. The actual experiments they perform often bearing little or no relevance to their subsequent careers.
Similarly with history; the content is just a minor part of the whole. The whole point (for future employment prospects) is what is learned about historical methodology and the academic approach. How to research, how to analyze, how to present findings; the whole process is designed to develop the critical intelligence.
One of the first things a student has to get to grips with is how to define a fact. Eric Hobsbawm, in his On History says that the “…absolutely central distinction between establishable fact and fiction,” must be the starting point for any respectable historian. What evidence is acceptable in a historical treatise? Is it valid or merely opinion? Are the sources trustworthy? Two possible occupations immediately spring to mind for anyone with proficiency in this particular area; the legal professions and journalism.
Once materials have been gathered the historian needs to evaluate and analyze them impartially. Which evidence is most important? What does it actually tell us about the period under observation? Does it give fresh insights into human achievements? Wall Street and business management are just two areas that are always in the market for clear, analytical thinkers.
Good university teachers will always encourage their students’ literary endeavors. Of course they will be on the lookout for the next generation of professional historians who will need to publish scholarly works; but developing a facility for writing clear, concise essays and term papers is good practice for anyone interested in management positions. The ability to communicate ideas with clarity is a commodity in short supply.
If historical research tells us anything it is probably that change is inevitable; but historical analysis might conclude that change does not always equate with progress, and it inevitably comes at a price. A lesson that anyone interested in a career in politics would do well to keep in mind.
Finally, a word on historiography; those absorbing stories that reveal the past to subsequent generations. Most children go through a stage when they show a deep fascination for the past, often to the embarrassment of their parents. “What was it like in the olden days, mommy?” Not the most tactful of questions to a young mother, perhaps, but it does demonstrate how human beings need to find out about, and understand, their origins.
A good grounding in history can provide students with the basis for an absorbing lifelong interest along with some of the tools in demand by discriminating employers. An added bonus might just be and increased awareness of what makes people tick.
On History, Eric Hobsbawm, Abacus, ISBN 0 349 11050 6