Academics attack new 'pick-and-mix' history degrees

'Medieval history is struggling to keep up'
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The Independent Online

Education Editor

Medieval history in universities is dying and new "pick-and- mix" history courses are reducing the subject to a shambles, according to a survey to be published this month.

The survey, based on questionnaires sent to 115 universities, reveals fierce controversy among dons about "modular" degrees which are chopped into bits. Students may study up to 20 topics in a year and sometimes mix topics from different disciplines.

Critics say the degrees are a superficial smorgasbord which may consist of a series of unrelated topics plucked from different dates and periods of history.

Supporters say they offer students more choice, that they will help to ensure more students sample history and correct widespread ignorance of Britain's history and heritage.

The survey, published in History Today and History Review, also suggests that medieval history, "while not quite at the dodo stage, is clearly struggling to keep up".

It says: "A good many respected academics are very worried that modularised degrees cheapen the type of history taught as they could have students simultaneously studying upwards of half-a-dozen unrelated subjects."

Gordon Marsden, editor of History Today, said academics from the 53 universities who replied to his questionnaire were worried that it was now possible to do a series of modules without any general background course such as the history of Western civilisation.

For example, a student might study for a few weeks each 20th century writers, social change and the Industrial Revolution, and encounters with overseas cultures from 1500-1700. "How can you make a judgement without knowing the background and context?" he asked. But many schools are enthusiastic about modular courses, which they see as a natural extension of increasingly popular modular A-levels.

Nick Henshall, editor of History Review and a teacher at Stockport Grammar School, accused the academics of being "stuck-in-the-mud and sniffy. This is taking academic purism to insane lengths. It's the same as saying if you can't understand Einstein's maths then you should be banned from knowing anything about the theories he proved".

He said there was an urgent need to educate more people about history. Modular courses meant students on other degrees, such as English, could now spend up to one-third of their time studying history. "On a traditional course they would have spent at least 90 per cent of their time studying English."

Professor Bernard Capp, of Warwick University, one of the academics questioned in the survey, spoke of "horror stories from other universities". "Modularisation with its danger of a pick-and-mix degree can mean abandoning intellectual coherence in the name of consumer choice". However, a few academics welcomed modular courses. Dr Christine Hallas, of Trinity and All Saints University, Leeds, praised the opportunities for choice and independent learning.

In general, universities say schools prepare students well for university history, though they regret "the seemingly remorseless advance towards a syllabus totally free of all but the most recent history".