My latest blog for Public History Weekly was inspired by meeting around 30 Essex applicants for group interviews earlier this year, all with their own reasons for wanting to study history and a truly diverse range of historical interests. None of them used the term, but every single one gave voice to ideas that are, for me, right at the heart of public history. They wanted tools to think with, to help them understand and navigate the world of the present and future – and they were clear that one of the toolkits they needed was historianship.
So much for the notion that the sciences are somehow ‘essential’ for society, the arts and humanities merely ornamental, an indulgence. They may be told that (including by parents and teachers, to whom they are sometimes having to justify their choice of A-level and degree subjects), but they don’t believe it.
That’s what got me thinking about that thorny topic of student ‘demand’ and whether we, as educators, are really open to engaging with it. Of course, there are demands we want to challenge and refuse. We want our students to discover hidden, unexpected and disruptive histories, even if they also follow the odd well-trodden path.
What these students said suggested to me that they don’t distinguish between studying history in a conventional sense and acquiring a historical toolkit. If it’s us educators who are hiving off ‘public history’ into bolt-on modules, placements and employability – and not seeing the exciting intellectual potential of integrating it into the ‘mainstream’ curriculum – then maybe we’re the problem. Sometimes, demands aren’t unreasonable.
Public history is making its presence felt in university history departments. Sometimes, it has a genuine champion among the academic staff. At others, it’s the response to demands from senior management that history degrees be made “relevant” to the wider world, and graduates more employable for an uncertain labour market. So, create a course about history presented on screen, in museums and at heritage sites. Add a placement option and match teams of students to community groups to undertake small projects. But is this approach doing our students justice? What happens if we flip the model and, rather than just creating new offerings labelled “public history”, we also look for opportunities to bring its critical eye to the “mainstream” curriculum?