What is History for?

For a degree centred on the past, History creates the ultimate graduate for uncertain futures but what is history for?

Historic portraits hanging in a dimly lit museum room

What is History for? A group that often have to answer this question are those who choose to study History at university. The question will often come from a concerned parent, worried that their child will end up with a worthless degree. Or it may come from a STEM-based peer who sees the obvious applications of their degree but can’t for the life of them see how a degree that includes studying sixteenth century Germany, or medieval weaponry, will hold any practicable value at all.

A place you won’t hear the question asked, however, is by employers who want colleagues with agile, questioning minds; who will gather and sift evidence rigorously with neither fear nor favour; who can develop clear and persuasive arguments quickly based on complex and often contradictory knowledge; and who can come to reasoned judgements based on an ability to think multi-perspectivally and empathetically. The latest Institute of Student Employers Recruitment Survey from 2021 indicates that only 14% of employers want graduates with a specific degree. In such a world, History graduates are in pole position in terms of employability.

More elaboration on what History is for, especially in terms of graduate attributes, may be found hot off the press in the latest edition of the Quality Assurance Agency’s Subject Benchmark Statement for History, released 30 March 2022. Every academic discipline has one of these Benchmark Statements, which ‘describe the nature of study and the academic standards expected of graduates in specific subject areas. They show what graduates might reasonably be expected to know, do and understand at the end of their studies’. They are refreshed periodically to ensure their continued relevance, and it was my great privilege to chair the History Advisory Group who contributed to the latest Benchmark for History. The group brought together subject specialists from across the sector and across the country, including another Birmingham historian, Dr Matthew Francis, as well as invaluable student and employer representation.

It was in the group’s interest to provide an accurate and relevant account of what History is for today, in 2022, and looking ahead to the rest of the decade. As well as significantly updating the usual Benchmark sections on the characteristics of a degree in History, including the multiplicity of innovative, student-centred ways it can be taught and assessed, we were glad to be invited to create new sections on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion; Sustainability and Entrepreneurship and Enterprise.

The more we shared of our courses, our colleagues, and most of all our students and graduates, the more it became clear that for a degree centred on the past, History creates the ultimate graduate for uncertain futures: intellectually independent, robust and versatile; unphased by challenging problems to which there is no one answer, or indeed any answer at all; and imbued with the importance of looking at issues from every perspective, especially those that tend to be ignored.

These ways of thinking, along with the high-level skills of deep, ethical research and effective communication that History degrees also foster, produces graduates who are in demand in a wide variety of careers. Some of these end up being related to History but many are not, such as education, public administration, law, HR, business and finance, marketing, PR and sales. History may be used for many things, but as a degree subject it lays a powerful, versatile, and highly skilled foundation for the future.

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