Having studied both GCSE and A level History, my review is mainly going to be based on how history is taught in schools and sixth form colleges.
As much as I love History, it's not my favourite subject, and I think for a lot of people it depends on how good your teacher is to a large extent. Though schools teach history from a variety of different eras and countries, I think the same subjects are repeated over and over again, for example Nazi Germany. Which in itself is of course fascinating, but by the fourth time you've studied it, there are only so many new things to discover, and it becomes more comparison-based rather than information-based. Another repeated topic is English monarchs, quite common at younger ages such as example primary school - a shame because it ends up being a very diluted version of events!
I was quite lucky because my school chose a rather obscure syllabus, which meant that we studied things like slavery and America in addition to the more typical topics. This continued through to GCSE level, where we studied 'Medicine Through Time'. This was an absolutely massive area (obviously), covering everything from the Greeks and ancient Chinese medicine right through to the NHS, which was really interesting. At college, we studied things like the unification of Italy and the Spanish civil war alongside the typical Nazi Germany, which was interesting for a more developed view of Europe. However, I still think that there's a lot of scope to cover much boarder and uncommon areas, for example rich Asian and South American cultures and even more modern history relating to Australia and New Zealand.
Lots of history study courses are essay-based, although you do get the occasional exam which relies on you knowing extensive background knowledge. Memorising dates isn't as important as it used to be in some respects; however you're expected to apply detailed knowledge to your essay. So learning dates is needed for that, but you can often blag your way out of it by writing around it if necessary! More advanced history courses teach things like Historiography, and comparing historians' views becomes more of a focus as you go on (in my experience). Because of this, some courses and areas can become quite dry, which is a shame because history can be such a fascinating thing. But it is important to make that transition from being spoon fed information to constructing arguments and coming up with your own views, which I think needs to be encouraged more from an earlier stage.
I still find History very interesting, but in terms of formal study and courses, I was right to stop at A level, and I now prefer to dip in and out of historical books about things I'm particularly interested in (both fiction and non-fiction), and experience more hands-on history through visiting sites and museums. A couple of years back I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and that held my interest and had much more meaning for me than any book or exam.
Having spent several years studying history and historical things at university, I thought now was as good a time as any to pass on some of the wisdom I have managed to acquire. This review is partly about studying history, and, inevitably, partly about my own particular reasons for being a history geek. I won't be offended if people don't fancy reading through it, history does seem to have a very specific audience - even though everything (including football, chocolate and music) has a history all of its own. I have tried to keep it short and sweet(ish) (by my standards at least) and it does end up with a few possibly controversial points. It is merely intended to put forward my own opinion on history, and why I feel it is so important now more than ever!
This subject is particularly pertinent to me this week, as Germany celebrates 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I can vividly remember this on the news as a child, and for me it is proof just how important understanding history is. In fact, I feel quite honoured to remember something so big, and feel it is important not to underestimate the power of modern historical events. Everything that has already happened is now part of our history - just because it is in living memory doesn't make it any less important.
When I first went to university, I actually began by studying law for two years. It took me a while to realise that it wasn't for me, and as an almost last minute decision I switched courses. Instead I took a Joint Honours course, split between Greek Civilisation and History. As soon as I'd begun, I wondered why I hadn't thought of it sooner - I had always really enjoyed history at school - and it really gave me a chance to start looking more closely at the world we live in.
As with any university course, what you learn depends very much on where you study it. More traditional universities use more traditional methods of teaching, whilst newer universities have different approaches. Neither is more or less valid than the other - just different. I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Leeds - very much a traditional university - and have just recently completed a Masters at Sheffield Hallam - a newer university. Both had a wide variety of subject areas on offer, incredibly supportive staff, and extensive libraries. One thing I will say for Sheffield Hallam was the way they tried to include a more vocational aspect to their course than I experienced in Leeds - introducing us to using archives and to working with community organisations/museums in our research. At Leeds, possibly as we were still undergraduates, our learning was very much based around reading books and papers available in the library - not on getting our hands dirty!
If you do decide to apply to study history, I can't emphasise enough how important it is to check the syllabus for each course you apply for. History is a huge topic, and not every department has the time or the staff to cover everything. If you have a particular area of interest, make sure the uni you go to has someone who can teach you about it! Like any other subject, everyone has their good and bad bits - make sure you get to learn about what you want, as studying the praying habits of 17th century monks or suchlike may not be for you...
Why should we study history today? The past is gone, so why not concentrate on the future I hear you ask? What can you do with a history degree? Lots of questions here, and I have a fair few answers. Firstly, the mercenaries choice - what can you do with a degree in history? Well, there are several ways to look at it. If you fancy joining the rat race and taking up a graduate trainee position in a big firm or living the corporate dream, you could do much worse than study history. It is a traditional subject, and teaches you a great number of transferable skills - from reading and analysing texts and documents, writing long pieces of work, and reading between the lines. As there are so many different areas to cover, you quite often step into other areas such as sociology, economics, business, cultural studies - again expanding your horizons. History is a subject that requires a large amount of personal study - not sat in large classes - making you ideally placed to move into a job where you do not need constant supervision and instruction. Accountancy and journalism are also industries that take history graduates seriously.
If you want, you can also try and pursue a more historical career. Maybe go on to further training and take up a career as an archivist or museum curator? Become a researcher at a museum, university or community organisation. My ideal career at this stage would be going into research, or scoring a job as an education officer in a museum - delivering workshops to visiting schools, community groups and anyone else who fancies it. And don't forget, schools are always looking for a good history teacher.
So, back to my other question - what does history have to teach us, and why should we care? The more I study and take an interest, the more I am convinced our future lies in our past. After all, history begins yesterday and travels all the way back.
Mankind has been making mistakes for thousands of years - if we hope to avoid them in the future, surely we need to know what they are. Until the close of the twentieth century, history had always been valued. Sadly, in the new era of globalisation us twenty-first century folk have a habit of thinking we have invented everything, and that it is in no way recognisable from the events of the past. But, as we look back, nothing has really changed. Globalisation is the new imperialism. America is the new British Empire. Iraq and Afghanistan may seem like modern conflicts, and have proved hugely emotive issues. Would it surprise many of you to know that Britain gave back Afghanistan's independence in 1919, after the third Anglo-Afghan war, after decades of fighting over it with Russia as part of the great race for Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Should this not change the attitudes some of us hold to the state the country is currently in, and our role in trying to create a more secure state? After all, many Europeans are still, understandably, resentful over conflict with Germany in the First World War this many years on - surely the Afghans are also likely to harbour a grudge or at least be cynical about western efforts to 'help'. Everyone has a past - just because we are unfamiliar with the history of others, doesn't mean ours is the most important story to be passed into the future.
Perhaps the biggest wake up call out there is the advent of the BNP. Anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge should be very scared of the threat they pose to society. Just look at Germany after World War I, where Hitler managed to captivate the imagination of a huge number of people suffering financial hardship and disillusionment in the state by using a variety of scapegoats to focus people's anger. We all know the tragic consequences that followed. If more people were to understand how he took power in the first place, there would be a lot less Griffin supporters out there on the streets of the UK. Those who took part in the Second World War would surely be ashamed at Griffin's attempt to turn Churchill into a BNP supporter and for using the memories of the conflict to further his own career - but he and his party are exactly what those brave men and women were fighting against all those years ago. The more people wake up to the lessons of the past, the less chance to politicians and rulers of today have to hoodwink us all into doing what is in their interest.
Maybe living under New Labour for so long, particularly after the farce that was the last set of Conservative Governments, being told what to think by them and the tabloids, and the gradual erosion of our civil liberties and rights to protest has left me somewhat jaded, but studying the past has made me realise the future is always in everyone's hands.
Join me in taking back tomorrow, by applying the lessons to today that we can all learn from those that have gone before us.