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As well as being a catchy double entendre, the title of this blog is also something of a manifesto: History Matters. It’s something I and my Sheffield colleagues (and many others, both within and beyond academia) genuinely believe, but in the past few years the value of the humanities has been increasingly challenged.[1] As rising fees and a troubled economy have raised questions about the financial benefits of a degree and the ‘employability’ of graduates, the ‘value’ of History has increasingly been measured in terms of the transferable skills it teaches, and its direct benefits to economy, society and policy. The Culture Secretary Maria Miller recently argued that British culture should be seen as a ‘commodity’ which should be promoted on the basis of its ‘economic impact’.[2] In research terms too, debates over the value of ‘impact’ (influence on non-academic audiences, for those of you blissfully residing outside of the clutches of the Research Excellence Framework)[3] have asked questions about the wider benefits of research: economic, social, cultural, political.

This is often a good thing. We should equip our students with skills for work and for life. We should help them to articulate the tangible benefits of their education. And we should be challenged to think about the wider ramifications and potential benefits of our work and try to find innovative ways to communicate to new and diverse audiences. (Provided, that is, that we don’t start from the assumption that everyone should do all of these things all the time.)

History does teach very considerable and valuable transferable skills (creativity, data analysis, verbal and written communication, research, information literacy, and critical thinking amongst others). It is highly regarded by employers,[4] and can make important and telling contributions to public policy, education and economy. But to reduce a historical (or indeed any) education solely to its profit margin is to rather miss the point.

Historical research for its own sake can be important, profound, educating, civilizing, fascinating, and entertaining. As a cultural historian, I believe it is essential for a humane, civilized and compassionate society. It helps us to understand ourselves, and to understand those who are entirely unlike us. Being an Aztec historian, trying to understand a society which can commit human sacrifice and yet remains a very human, compassionate, familiar culture, drives me to challenge cultural norms and to empathise with very different world views. If I can understand a city where parents cuddling their toddlers mingle with warriors wearing the skins of sacrificial victims, then maybe I can understand (if not identify with) a place where parents can deliberately kill six of their children in a devastating house fire.

Let me be clear – I am not advocating absolute cultural or moral relativism. As a historian, I hope to understand, even to empathise, but I believe the purpose of this understanding should be to encourage engagement, promote dialogue, and hopefully to bring about positive change.

Here in Sheffield, we try and start this dialogue with our third years in a module (with accompanying twitter feed @usesofhistory) called The Uses of History. And, before they go out into the world and find ‘uses’ for their degree, we ask them to think about if, how and why History matters to them: as people, as applicants for jobs, as citizens, as members of the public, as historians.[5] At MA level, in Presenting the Past, we go a step further and think specifically about the implications of this for the academy, reflecting on the issues involved in the practice of public history; this is more about how to make history matter, and the students all produce their own pieces of public history. (Alex Jackson is going to talk about the research for one of these group projects in an upcoming blog.)

I love these modules. They have exposed me to some fascinating, thought-provoking and sometimes startling opinions about why Sheffield historians think History matters (or occasionally, doesn’t). They have provided some of the most lively and contentious discussions I can remember (most notably when asking whether historians should appear on the same platform as Holocaust deniers). And my students’ at-times-heated debates show me that they (sometimes at least) really do think that History matters and that they, as historians, have something distinctive to contribute.

As an occasional TV talking head, consultant, popular writer, former lecturer on both these courses, blogger and (mostly) twitterstorian, I am (unsurprisingly) a huge advocate of public history and a great enthusiast of finding ways to engage broader audiences with my research. And that’s what public history means for me, in my work.

But public history is a very broad church, and so this is the first (and doubtless the most rambling) of a series of blogs looking at public history from many different perspectives: digital, educational, popular, musical, political, artistic, entertaining.[6]

Twitter tells me that lots of people like history; they’re interested in it; they care about it. But does it matter? I think so.

Caroline Dodds Pennock is Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield and co-ordinator of the History Matters blog. You can see more about her engagement in public history on her webpage and follow her on twitter (if you want to!) @carolinepennock. If you’d like to read her work on the Aztecs, Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture is available in paperback.

You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.

Image © Michael Kappell [Computer History Museum in Mountain View California, under Creative Commons licence]


[1] This challenge is being met by all kinds of different organisations and individuals, and saw the springing up of a number of groups such as Arts Emergency. In Sheffield, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield staged a major event on The Value of the Arts and Humanities at which journalists, politicians, academics, business people and politics argued that: “Arts and Humanities subjects cause life-changing personal development, teach us to engage with ideas critically and independently, and equip students with the skills necessary to understand – and thus work in and manage – how complex organizations operate and change. They also ‘sustain and preserve the heart and soul of our civilisation.” This was followed last year by an event Against Value in the Arts and Humanities which had an equally inspiring, though in some ways opposing, purpose: “This event does not offer a defence. It has not been curated to answer the denigration of the value of the arts and humanities with a palatable restatement of their virtues. This event offers a counter proposition: that the task of the arts and humanities, both in their creative and educative aspects, is to contest, to challenge, to question, to undermine, to satirise, to offend, to violate, to deconstruct, to degenerate, to critique, to undo, or to suspend dominant and dominating assumptions of value. The purpose of the arts and humanities, the purpose of the university, is to think against value.”

[2] I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the quite considerable outcry Miller’s comments provoked. Commentators responses to the speech included ‘singularly depressing’ and ‘deeply worrying’. Twitter was, unsurprisingly, a little more forthright.

[3] The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK Higher Education institutions. You can read more about it (if you really want to) here: http://www.ref.ac.uk/.

[4] Sometimes for surprising reasons. I was told once by someone working for a major investment house that they were always interested when they saw History on a CV because it teaches students how to spot patterns and trends amongst large quantities of data.

[5] Key questions in the module are: Who owns the past? In what ways do academic studies differ from other ways of representing history? Is history the same as heritage? How are new ways of producing and consuming history changing the discipline? What is the relationship between academic research and the wider public? What is the purpose of studying history now, and how has this changed over time? Can we draw lessons from the past?

[6] I should probably note that ‘public history’ is a rather more clearly defined field in the US, and so this is admittedly a rather British perspective on the whole thing. US guest bloggers enthusiastically received!

Tags : employabilityhistory matterspublic historyteaching historytwitteruses of historyvalue of a degreevalue of history

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