Economic and Social History Blog


The importance of History (and broad university degrees)

As mentioned in the previous post I spent Friday and Saturday working at the open days of the History and PPE programmes. One of the things prospective history students get asked by their family and friends is what they’re going to do with their degree (the cliché question is do you want to be a history teacher). Direct application of knowledge about historical facts to today’s workplace might only be possible in a few niche fields, but historians acquire a wide-range of transferable skills. Being able to process and write in a coherent and succinct way about large amounts of material; the ability to juggle different perspectives; knowledge of long-term processes – these are all skills that are relevant in many different sectors. At the history department in Utrecht we think that it is important that students are aware of the value of their skills. We encourage them to pursue internships as an integral part of their degree in a broad range of organisations. The statistics also show that our graduates end up in a wide variety of sectors, from 17% in business to approximately 20% working in the policy sector in various forms (national, regional, EU etc.). Only 11% end up in teaching and a measly 2% working in libraries or archives (another cliché occupation that is asked about).

Based on the work of Lara Boon for her MA thesis in the Politics and Society in Historical Perspective MA programme


But history graduates (and more generally those with a humanities or broad interdisciplinary background) are important for other reasons. This article published today highlights that fact. It speculates that had the leaders of the tech world today, the heads’ of Google and Facebook etc. had a broader educational background they might well have foreseen some of the less fortuitous outcomes of their technologies; the hijacking of their tools for political ends, for instance. Focusing too narrowly on disciplines that ignore human nature and the past breeds graduates who may well miss a grounding in how society works. Therefore such programmes as PPE, but also University College Utrecht and the Liberal Arts and Sciences degree are invaluable in producing well-rounded graduates who can pull together insights from different disciplines. But historians also have a role to play. Although specialists are of course necessary this does not undermine the value of pursuing a humanities subject, supported by an understanding of the importance in looking beyond disciplinary boundaries. We see this in the work colleagues of ours (for instance Tine De Moor, Bas van Bavel, Maarten Prak and Jan Luiten van Zanden) are asked to do for various political organisations. But also in the areas where history students end up working and doing internships. The students who excel in the history programme are those who are curious and motivated and in the best possible way interested in everything.

One masters that fits well with this mind-set is the History of Politics and Society MA. In this programme students learn to use comparative approaches and theory inspired by the social sciences to help them analyse historical phenomena. They also follow courses which include writing policy briefs, and many find internships in the context of the MA where they can directly apply their knowledge gleaned from the programme. A number of its students will be writing posts for this blog (and one already has, to be found here).

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