History: The new rock'n'roll

It has become a 'cool' subject, and increasing numbers of students are signing up for university courses. Has Simon Schama turned them on to the past, or has the millennium sparked the new interest?

By Lucy Hodges
Thursday 16 January 2014 03:40

It is no surprise that this autumn our air waves will be full of TV history programmes presented by dons from Royal Holloway College. Amanda Vickery will be fronting a BBC 2 series on love through the ages, and Justin Champion will be cantering through the kings and queens of England – yes, them again – for ITV.

History, as they say, is the "new gardening" or the "new rock'n'roll". And Royal Holloway has become one of the most exciting places for the subject. The students are, accordingly, rolling in. Applications to study history at the college, which is part of London University, are up by an amazing 51 per cent this year. That reflects a national trend. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the number of students applying to study period history this autumn has increased by 15 per cent. That contrasts with the late Nineties, when applications dipped. Is the new-found popularity a direct result of telly dons such as Simon Schama and David Starkey breathing new life into the subject?

Yes, says Jonathan Phillips, Royal Holloway's admissions tutor, and a telly don himself, having made a television programme on Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, the Muslim leader. "History is in the media, and is something that people are taking a lot more interest in," he says. "The programmes are not only very accessible, but they are good as well."

His colleague Justin Champion, who was rushing off for a hair appointment at Vidal Sassoon in preparation for his kings and queens series, agrees. Television programmes show us how other people live. They reveal how historians make history and people begin to realise that they can do it, too.

The new popular history on TV and in the bookshops has spawned a whole industry of magazines and websites. The magazine History Today has in two years managed to build a circulation of 50,000 copies a month. "History helps us to understand a fast-changing world," says Greg Neale, its editor. "By knowing a little bit more about where we come from, perhaps we can understand the world a bit better and work out where we are going."

All the highly rated departments are showing a rise in applications. At Nottingham, one of the most popular departments in the country, if not the most popular, applications for the two principal degrees – history, and history and politics – are up by 61 per cent. Last year 1,361 students applied for the two degrees; this year the number has risen to 2,189.

Nottingham applicants need two As and a B at A-level to gain entry to history – about the same as Oxford's requirements – compared to the one A and two Bs at Royal Holloway. But that doesn't put the students off. "Kids watch the TV programmes and think this is fun and interesting, and so they get into history more," says Joyce Ellis, Nottingham's history admissions officer.

But there are other reasons why history is so popular. Amanda Vickery, a reader in modern British women's history at Royal Holloway, thinks we are in love with historical memory, as evidenced by the number of visitors flocking to National Trust houses, the London Dungeon or Madame Tussaud's. "We're steeped in it," she says. "Everyone wants to know where they come from. It's a fundamental human impulse."

There is also popular thirst for the big outline story, particularly as teenagers no longer get it in schools. That makes Simon Schama and his narrative sweeps through history a big draw. But Dr Vickery doesn't believe that the telly dons are persuading students to take the subject at university. "When I ask my students why they chose the subject, they invariably say it was a history teacher," she explains. "History programmes make people feel good about their choice. But the decision to choose history is much more to do with Mrs Jones who taught them history in the lower sixth than Starkey on the box."

It is almost certainly true that the new-found love of history is tapping into our deep-seated yearning to gain a better understanding of ourselves. But the new popular history transmitted on television did not get going until the millennium was upon us, according to Dr Daniel Power, the senior admissions tutor for history at Sheffield. "The current wave of documentaries happened when people began to think about the millennium," he says. "Since then it's developed its own momentum."

Sheffield received 1,277 applications for 170 places and has seen demand increase this year by 27.3 per cent for its single honours history degree. Last year numbers were up as well. Like Royal Holloway, it has its star historians, notably Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, who has written two Penguin volumes of biography of Hitler, and who was knighted recently for services to history. Unlike Royal Holloway, Sheffield does not suffer from the high prices that deter many young people from going to university in London. This London effect is seriously hampering the ability of London colleges to recruit good students.

That Royal Holloway has been able to increase demand so spectacularly in the face of the London effect is testament to its growing reputation. The college has also been trying very hard to establish relationships with school teachers. It has a group that meets regularly with teachers to exchange news and views. And it has been fostering links with state and independent schools so that it can attract students from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible. On open days it gives students and parents an enticing taste of what the lectures are like – full of jokes, slides and videos.

Another London college that says its history applications are holding up is King's, which has a glittering reputation for research. One reason the subject is popular, according to Dr Robert Frost, the head of history, is that it gives you all the skills you need in almost any job. You learn to sift through a large amount of information, deciding what is important. And you learn to make judgements on the basis of inadequate or imperfect data, and to present them in an interesting way. "History has not disappeared up its own backside," he says. "There's a market for a history degree. If you want to do law or go into the media a history degree will set you up."

There is some evidence that the new AS- and A-level syllabuses for history are actually encouraging young people to continue with the subject. And almost everyone says that history at university has become more interesting. At Royal Holloway it is taught in a way that tries to engage students; they have great choice and access to all kinds of new computer programmes, which make getting at the data easier.

And then, of course, we have been blessed in the past decade with some very good historians, melding narrative history with some brilliant analysis, while making it accessible and interesting. Antony Beevor's Stalingrad and Berlin are terrific reads, according to Tristram Hunt, the Cambridge historian. They have turned a whole new generation on to history.

Royal Holloway's approach

Three years ago Royal Holloway made some radical changes to its history degrees after finding that it was attracting students with very little historical knowledge. Because of changes to the A-level syllabus, it found students were turning up at university wanting to do the Nazis and modern British history and very little else. That was because those were the areas they knew, and they were playing safe in wanting to stay with them.

So Royal Holloway said their students would have to learn about the broad sweep of history. In the first year history undergraduates have to study the ancient Greeks and learn about non-Western culture in the modern world. "We designed a first year that forces them to do a historiography course from Herodotus to Foucault," says Dr Champion.

Courses in the first year include The Material World: Culture and Environment in the last two millenia and State Society and the Individual in the Non-Western World. In addition, students have to take a course in computing for historians and a unit called Lies, Damned Lies: Economic Statistics for Historians. Other courses in the first year include religion and the political life of ancient Greece and Rome, the birth of Western Christendom and early modern Europe from 1500 to 1800. Another course takes you up to the present day.

Later on there is much more choice. Students can choose from America in the Sixties to modern political ideas to Britain, the US and the decline of the West in East Asia 1894 to 1975.

Like other universities, Royal Holloway has become much more global in its reach with courses covering the Far East, France and America. Graduate students can take an MA in women's history from 1500 to 1980.

With any luck they will also find themselves being taught by Amanda Vickery, Justin Champion or Jonathan Phillips, who are a great advertisement for the place. "History is meant to be fun," says Dr Champion. "You are spending three years of your life studying it. You've got to enjoy it. If you don't, you are not going to be very good at it."


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