Why a History degree is awesome

If you didn’t know, i’m doing a Masters in History at Edinburgh University; and if you couldn’t guess it from my family name, i’m French.

One of my favourite things about the UK is their open mindedness about what you study – i’ve met lawyers who read Theology, entrepreneurs who majored in History of Art and fund managers who used to be dentists.

Come to France and you’ll find businessmen who studied business (God help them) and a nation of people who stare at you open mouthed when you explain you’re reading History but started one company and are thinking of the online payment space for your next venture.

French culture, i’ve been told, is Cartesian and linear, what friends are too polite to say is that that implies it is unimaginative. I wont disagree. We make great engineers.

In contrast, the Anglo-Saxon world is more able to recognise:

1) That skills are transferrable

2) That if you learnt one thing to a complex level, you can learn something else. A good degree proves you are able to digest and engage with intelligent thinking.

That’s why historians are most likely to end up working as an analyst in a bank in Britain.

On that note let me tell you what i think a history degree is about, and why it’s so interesting:

History is about taking the concepts of different disciplines – psychology, philosophy, sociology, economics, anthropology… and applying them to a know substrate – the human past.

To study history is to grapple at the interface of how concepts and data sets relate. Ideas of the highest abstraction can be studied, interpreted and reconfigured before being applied to the past to see how they hold up in different scenarios. To try and illustrate what i mean,  here three different themes of questions i get to ask myself in my degree:

1) To what extent are we the product of our own society? and what agency do we have to change it? Was Hitler a product of his time, or were the Nazis ‘an historical aberration’?

2) To what extent has 2009 been a repeat of 1929? What lessons can we learn from the Great Depression that might help us solve the Great Recession? Does Bernanke’s unparalleled mastery of the economic history of 1929 inform his decisions at the Fed, or does it instead limit him?

3) Why is there such disparity between the ex-colonisers and ex-colonised sixty years after independence? Is it possible that colonial powers left behind powerful structures of discourse which predispose entire nations towards corruption and anomie? Are France, Britain and Portugal to blame for the failure of post-Independence Africa? Or does the blame lie natively, with a ‘hippo generation’ sucking the life blood out of national economies for personal gain?

4) What is so impossible about a European nation? In 1788 most people thought of themselves as part of a tangible community of people they knew, living in a region they had seen. The French revolution introduced ideas of ‘imagined communities’ – essentially of a ‘nation’ where large groups of people who have never heard of each other feel powerful ties of kinship based on imagined similarities and forgotten differences. In the next century the concept of ‘the nation’ grew and grew, witnessing the unification of regions into states. What is so crazy in thinking that in our interconnected world the European imagined community might transcend nationhood to the point where integration at the price of sovereignty becomes popularly acceptable? Indeed, isn’t that happening already?

History allows you to think about society today, by bouncing concepts against the past. Ultimately, we look for answers that are relevant to us – why are we the way we are? How should we go about solving the problems we face today? How might we extrapolate trends into the future?

History is not irrelevant, it is a holistic exercise – if you can think creatively and make interesting connections about the past, you can make them about anything, and isn’t that what innovation is all about?

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