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. …