History ventures: skills vs knowledge in the public history marketplace

“The skills of doing history are more frequently used, needed, and recompensed than the expertise of knowing history”

This is Darlene Roth, writing in the NCPH’s Public History News.  Roth goes on to talk about the successful model of ‘developmental history’ work her consultancy The History Group undertook for planners, developers and government agencies.  She also refers to corporate histories and museum curation.  These examples open our eyes to the range of tasks and projects that can done well – or best – by historians, whether academics working ‘across borders’ or the historically-trained working in professional contexts.

But for me it also suggests the need to open our minds.  Can we articulate clearly what ‘the skills of doing history’ are and be creative in identifying tasks that are not necessarily explicitly historical in character but would be done well – or best – by historians?  There are fields where there is often a ‘history gap’, such as in policy development, marketing or organisational strategy, but these should not constitute the limits of our imagination.

Working this out is not just a self-serving exercise.  Humanities applications for the first year of the new funding system are down in many institutions.  It’s too early to say whether concerns about employability in the context of higher debt are a major factor, but it’s a strong possibility – particularly for certain student groups – that we need to consider (league tables of salaries are rather unhelpful here).  More needs to be done to ensure prospective students and their parents understand the student finance system, but  universities have a role too, and not just their recruitment and marketing departments.  Open days and school visits are important opportunities for university staff to meet students and parents and discuss what studying a particular subject at a particular institution is like.  If, as historians, we can share with them the many ways in which the skills of doing history can be meaningfully and usefully applied in the world of work, and our commitment to helping students develop those skills, we can start to counteract the belief that a humanities degree ‘just equips them for standing in the dole queue’ (as one Tweeter said to me recently).

Students come to university for many reasons.  To further their job prospects may only be one reason, but it’s a legitimate one, and one with which we need to engage.  We shouldn’t give in to the cynicism that divides knowledge and skills and denigrates the latter as empty, instrumental or devalued.  Nor should we section off ‘employability skills’ in the curriculum; by teaching students to be historians, we are developing skills needed for work – we just need to bring awareness of that connection to the surface (see my earlier Parallel Tracks blog post).  I hope the emerging field of public history can provide a context to help us frame the terms of the debate rather differently.

Roth goes on:

I am saying that it pays to look at how you do what you do as a historian, and how you think as a historian, and follow those routes to marketability, not just the standard one of equating historical knowledge as the thing being sold.  Ergo: “I am an entrepreneur, and history is my product” becomes “I am an entrepreneur and history is the source of my products”… If history is the answer, what is the question?  Who needs it and why?

We may prefer a somewhat different language in this country, but I think we can take on the idea of entrepreneurship and interpret it for our own context.  Can we be entrepreneurs for the discipline, for the practice of history, but also for our students so that they can see history as their future?

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3 thoughts on “History ventures: skills vs knowledge in the public history marketplace

  1. I think this line of thinking is very helpful. I would add, however, that it is infused with the language of entrepreneurialism. Doing history needs to be an experience — doing it — so it would be good to include why one does it, not just to sell it. What is the nature of its particular viewpoints and methods. |That is what will make it valuable to other field, and perhaps consolidate its position in th academy. My concern is that as unviversities seek customers, i an atmosphere of satisfying them, one had to assume that the customer knows best without the experience needed to make the choice. It fits this gov’t’s attitude towards the public sector (to dissolve it), but it doesn’t suit a critical frame of mind hoined through actual work. Historians need to think about their relationship with their colleagues, then about the customers.

  2. I would challenge the academic historians to embrace the need to ensure that history students are aware of the immense, employment-relevant skills set that they develop during a history degree programme. Some I have met reject the idea that this skills-awareness is the business of the academic; that is a legitimate position but it comes with consequences – remain relevant to contemporary student needs in the enhanced fee paying world of the 21st century, or become obsolescent.

  3. Two interesting comments. I think it’s hard to maintain a position that skills awareness isn’t the business of the academic (though I realise this is a resilient idea) when we are ‘training’ students in the methods of a discipline, a training which allows them to access specialist forms of knowledge. You can’t do anything with anything without using skills of some kind – are we not just doing our job when we encourage students to ‘do’ their subjects in a mindful way? Such reflective capacity is applicable in an academic career as it would be elsewhere. And understanding why we study history (or any other subject) is an essential part of that process – I agree. But the relationships that matter for configuring a discipline’s identity and place in the academy are broader than collegiate ones. There are many legitimate conversations to be had – that universities and their disciplines are or should be entirely intellectually self-sufficient and can proceed on an internal logic of past and future development seem to me rather unproductive assumptions (which also belie the history of universities as institutions). There is no doubt that the rhetoric of governments over the last 30 years or so has been hugely challenging to the humanities and I don’t have any answers here – beyond emphasising the need to participate in policy dialogue and to refuse to allow perceived divides and battle fronts to dictate the terms of engagement.

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