Cambridge University

By Booth, Edward | History Review, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Cambridge University


Booth, Edward, History Review


Edward Booth, a third-year history student at St John's College, looks at the legend and the reality

Weeping willows lazily drape their heavy limbs at the water's edge, seeking cool refreshment beneath the sun. The stillness is broken only by the splash and ripples of a punt gliding effortlessly by. From one side radiates the warm glow of fine Wren sandstone and on the other lies a large eighteenth-century lawn. This is not a dream of yesteryear but the view from your sixteenth-century bedroom window. This sense of history is deeply, romantically infectious. Even the trendiest and most socialist of students quickly lose their anti-elitist consciences and learn to punt or row.

Yet, in content at least, the Cambridge History course is not locked in its own past but incredibly broad-ranging and flexible. You choose your own subjects from a very long list that is chronologically comprehensive. In the first two years, you can study subjects as diverse as ancient and medieval political thought, twentieth-century economy and society, and Europe's colonial history. You must take at least one paper covering history outside Britain and one covering history pre-1700. In your final year, specialist courses might cover the intelligence services, James II's troubled three year reign or the early spread of Christianity. Even within papers, YOU have enormous choice about what you study. The course is free of dogma and by the third year has become a genuine melting-pot of ideas. If you write a dissertation, you can choose any subject you like and a supervisor will be found: almost 100 history fellows were listed in the university prospectus4n 1995.

Indeed, anyone who goes to Cambridge should first be attracted tb the course. This is the area in which Cambridge clearly surpasses other universities. It will also form by fAr the main part of your undergraduate life there. You will be surrounded by interesting and informed people who are as motivated by the course, as you are This is guaranteed by an interview application system in which the successful candidate is the one who succeeds in interesting an interviewer who has heard the same debates run several times over.

Academic life is also where the colleges and university focus their spending. You will never have the excuse, common at other universities, that the obscure German translation of a twelfth-century book you were set to read was not in the libraries (many of which are open twenty-four hours a day). Colleges also generally ensure that your room(s) will always be comfortable, well equipped and college-owned, and that you will never have to cook for yourself if you do not want to, in some cases they also give generous book grants and travel grants.

However, you might feel that your level of work in comparison to friends elsewhere has earned such spending. During term time, you will be expected to produce just over 2,000 words a week, often on very different topics. Reading lists are by no means skimpy. Nevertheless, like the weekly one-on-one supervision with an expert in the field, they are a source of great reward as well as fear. Since the courses are often very ideas-driven, interest and thought are well repaid and supervisions can be intellectually exciting. Supervisors do however vary a great deal in their demands, interests and methods of teaching.

Individual supervision also encourages specialisation within each paper rather than giving a broad education in the history of facts and events. This tendency to specialise, combined with extensive choice of subjects, can limit lectures' relevance to your own studies and make revision difficult for exams, where questions come up on anything. You may often only feel competent to answer five of the twenty or so questions on a paper after eight weeks' work. Because you are essentially creating your own pick-and-mix course, you have to be pretty self-reliant.

The degree of choice and flexibility in the Cambridge course is created by the structural informality of the collegiate system. …

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