I was reading an article in the Evening Standard on the 10th March 2010 called ‘Forget the degree, go for the gap year’ about the lack of value in getting a university degree in subjects like English and History. The general thrust of the article was that one of the City’s leading professional bodies were saying that only degrees that teach vocational skills, such as medicine, law or architecture are worth doing as you can use those skills to get a job. If you get an arts degree like English or History you run the risk of only having the skills to get a job asking ‘do you want fries with that?’ This got me a little annoyed; I believe that people get really valuable skills out of studying subjects such as English and History that enables them to be more successful in whatever career they choose later in life.
I studied History A Level at school so that is the subject I am writing about, which is supposedly not worth studying anymore. I will say why I believe studying History is more valuable today than it was 16 years ago, before the dawn of the commercial Internet, and I will also say why I think that employers are being very short sighted and blinkered if they disregard people that study this subject.
Why is learning about the historical events useful?
The quick answer is it is not at all useful in everyday life, perhaps it is if you are at a pub quiz or get on Who Wants to be a Millionaire but that is about it. What is useful are the skills you are taught and use during your studies.
What are the skills you learn when studying history
To study historical period in any detail you need to look at a lot of primary evidence, even more secondary evidence and even more analysis and debate of this information. One of the periods of history I studies was the Tudors, lots happened during that period in the UK which shaped the world we live in today, The Spanish Armada, discovering America, leaving the Catholic Church to name but a few. So why is this useful? I cannot remember needing that information, however I found it taught me how to collect, analyse and rank large amounts of information to make informed decisions on who to believe and create a reasoned argument supported by evidence.
The easiest way to get these skills is to study a period of History which is well documented. The events and their consequences are known and perhaps more importantly evidence of the motives of those involved has come to light. This then allows lots of debate and analysis around the events and the supporting evidence. The history of Tudor’s has had 100’s of 1000’s of hours of analysis done on it, countless books and documentaries created, feature films, fierce debates rage about the interpretation of the evidence. So in summary there is a lot to get stuck into, it is a very stable set of information and having good Information Management skills is critical.
Some questions should you ask about evidence
- How do you know you can trust it?
- Why does it says what it says?
- What has motivated the author to comment?
- Why should you believe them?
- Are they well informed?
- Do other subject matter experts reference their work or use the evidence?
- Are there other people that have similar views?
- What does the Primary evidence tell us?
- Should you do your own research and analysis on the Primary evidence?
- What are the consequences of this information being wrong?
- Who will benefit from you believing this information?
Why these skills are more useful than 16 years ago
We are now living in the ‘Information Age’ and these information management skills are so much more important now and will become even more important for the foreseeable future.
16 years ago there were established ‘Information Gatekeepers’ who filtered out the bad and the ugly information then published the good to the masses via what we now call Old Media. For example The Encyclopaedia Britannica, other published books, documentaries, news papers. The information gatekeepers are highly skilled in ranking, gathering and publishing information so the masses did not have to be.
Then the Internet arrived and the rules changed, suddenly anyone could publish a website with whatever they thought on it. This lead to a new breed of Information Gatekeepers, the search engine. The key to Google’s success has been to rank websites based on the relevance of their content. The more relevant and referenced a website is the higher it’s Google ranking. This meant that the masses could still use this filtering mechanism to trust their sources but now needed to do a limited amount of assessment of the information they looked at.
However the rules have changed again in the last few years with the rise of services like Facebook and Twitter which we can call Social Media. These platforms have allowed individuals to share their own and see other people’s information, views and experiences in a completely unfettered way and this time there is no Information Gatekeeper at all. It is down to the individual to have the skills to be discerning about the information they are reading. People need to ask the same questions of Social Media information as a historian would ask about historical evidence. These Social Media platforms provide a number of tools to help people do this, such as the number of followers a Twitter account has, but have people been trained to know how to use this information?
Those that believe subjects such as History are outdated and irrelevant in the modern world are being naive and short sighted. The skills gained in these subjects are becoming more important than ever before. Learning things is hard and so trying to teach people on a moving platform, such as the Internet, is a really bad idea. By using a stable platform, such as a set period in History with lots of high quality information, makes it much easier to teach people how to become effective Information Gatekeepers.
If you are an employer wanting to hire someone, you should consider giving more weight to the skills people have from non-technical subjects. Most people learn industry skills on the job and someone bringing skills learnt from subjects such as history is more likely to bring quality to the information used in their work and your company. This could in turn well lead to more quality to the business decisions that are made.
Remember, there’s a lot of crap on the Internet, it doesn’t mean you need to tread in it.