Does a History Education Matter?

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John Henry Newman

In late September the Pope traveled to England and beatified Cardinal Newman.  One month later the British government’s 40% funding cuts demonstrated the limited influence of sainthood in the politics of higher education. (See Glen O’Hare for a review of the cuts).

Newman has a similar status among humanities professors and graduate students as he does among the faithful.  He remains a guiding light for the ideal of a liberal arts education a century and a half after he gave the inaugural lectures at the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin.  These lectures argued for the inherent value of a liberal education in the arts in the creation of citizens.  John Morgan explains in his article in Inside Higher Ed “Newman described the university as a place for the teaching of “universal knowledge” rather than vocational training or research, where students pursued a broad-based liberal education.”

A month after Newman became a saint, the coalition government announced a major cut to higher education and shifted a lot more of the cost of university to the students.  This has been a dramatic transformation, started under New Labour, to transition from no tuition fees in the 1990s to potentially very high tuition fees in the near future (I’ve heard estimates of £9,000-£12,000 at the elite schools).  Even more alarmingly, the spending cuts targeted the arts more aggressively than sciences and engineering.  From now on students who want a liberal education in England and Wales will be asked to pay the full cost of their education.  Universities will increasingly be vocational schools where  smart students can train for high tech jobs, with smaller arts programs where wealthier students can learn “universal knowledge.”

I think this is a terrible development for three reasons: firstly, I’m about to finish a PhD in British history and this will contract the job market in my chosen field even further; secondly, because I firmly believe in Newman’s philosophy of education; and thirdly, because I think a liberal education, particularly one in history, is very useful.

Many of my friends have degrees in history.  Some are completing PhDs like myself, but many are working in a wide range of jobs.  Finding a fulfilling job upon completing a history degree is not easy.  I spent a year cooking in a kitchen, using my only immediately employable skill that I learned through summer jobs, not through six years of university education.  My friend went from being the valedictorian of our undergrad class, and a strong performance in our MA program, to washing dishes and watching holes at hazardous job sites.  During the first year after many of my friends finished their history degree they had little success in the job market.  Many of them went back to school.

Now that it has been six years since I finished my MA and seven since completing my BA, I can report many of these same friends are doing a lot better.   The hole watcher is a manager in career development at a university, my partner is a sustainability coordinator (she did a third degree in Environmental Studies after her History MA), another friend is a leading sustainable food activist and a fourth is in Public Relations.  Many others are lawyers, teachers and small business owners – none are washing dishes.  They have the skills demanded by the changing job market.  They know how to research and write, think creatively, solve problems and manage situations.  Most of them have jobs that demand a lot of different skill, which could not be simply taught in vocational career focused programs; they learn on the job.

As the internet plays an increasingly prominent role in our economy, people who can create content are in high demand.  So while I think history departments, and other humanities programs, should stick to the Newman philosophy of encouraging our students to study for the sake of learning, we should also do a better job of presenting the “value” of a liberal education in today’s job markets.  We need engineers to design iPads, but we also need historians, English  and film studies students to create the content people will read and watch on Apple’s latest device.  O’Hara makes this argument for the British context: “Industries such as animation, cinema, computer games, theatre, travel and tourism – all areas of relative British strength and success – demand arts graduates, the training of which is vital to Britain’s economy.” Beyond supplying the cultural industry with skilled labour, we also need creative thinkers and innovators to solve the many problems we face today and in the future and a history or philosophy education can create those future leaders.

The English university system is very different from the Canadian and American systems and can not be not directly compared.  However, those of us in Ontario have already survived the Rae Report and across North America we know today’s budget deficits are tomorrows austerity programs.  One preemptive initiative, to help bolster our value beyond the Newman philosophy, would be to teach a lot more digital skills to students in arts programs, alongside the traditional focus on reading, discussing and writing.  Acadia University in Nova Scotia has been doing this for more than a decade and many digital humanists incorporate web development into their history, literature and philosophy classes.  I think we should be very wary of using Newman as an excuse to not give our students any vocational skills and instead, we should use our own creativity to explore ways to teach “universal knowledge” and HTML code in the same assignments.

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